Tuesday, November 04, 2008

This blog is vetoed

Whether you call it a veto or whether you call it just a moratorium -- actually, don't call it either because what we are talking about, of course, is the interdict on Latin.

Some arbiter elegantiarum in Town Hall circles has decreed that the language of Cicero is not fit for quotidian use. Not, of course, that any councils have emulated the Finnish news station or the Holy Office of the Bishop of Rome and transmitted press releases in the pristine tongue of the ancient Romans. It is the incidental, the minutiae, about which the custodians of our lingua franca are presently concerned. And they have the support of an organisation I have formerly considered the praetorian guard of good sense: the Plain English Campaign, who have not just given it their fiat, they have positively placed their imprimatur on the announcement, citing the example of 'e.g.', which, it is claimed, could be confused with 'egg' and is, ergo, an impediment to simple comprehension.

This leaves me in a quandary. I am accustomed, when speaking in Council, to ad lib impromptu and extempore -- which I realise makes the compilation of a verbatim record difficult. From now on, on such occasions, recourse to a Latin tag will now be no more than a tantalising temptation. I will have to practise self-restraint.

If the zeitgeist is so opposed too classical culture that expressing ourselves without reference to Latin is now de rigueur, I can be sure that aficionados of Council soirees will find there are enough bons mots in a veritable smogasbord of European idioms to let us ridicule this latest idee fixe. And if someone doesn't like it, take it to the ombusdman.


Joe Otten said...

Romani ite domum

wit and wisdom said...

And a good thing too. There is nothing wrong with absorbing foreign words into our language - which is why it is the finest in the world.

Speaking or writing Latin in official documents is different as it seeks to set people apart from others. It is pretty much a statement that 'I had a better education than you and only if you share that privilege can you comprehend me'.

Language should be about communication as well as style and if your audience can't understand you, you're not communicating.

'Sic transit gloria mundi', as Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge so brilliantly put it in the words of Asterix's pirates.

David Rundle said...

W&W: here's the serious point. What is being 'banned' are -- so the press has it -- terms like vice versa and et cetera which, I'd argue has become basic to the English language. They are not a sign of separation but are part of the shared heritage.

There are other phrases which it certainly could be argued are less common -- and they may be Latin, Latinate or from a different source. Where I'd question the argument you've alluded to is the idea the 'education' is something one had and it is over. Surely, we continue to learn and to educate ourselves. Hardly a day passes when, at the age of 39, I learn a new word or phrase and I'm pleased to do so. We shouldn't assume that people both don't know and don't want to learn.

wit and wisdom said...

David, when I lived in London I was requried to attend a 'plain English' course. I found it incredibly annoying and I argued grumpily throughout it as I felt they were asking me to dumb down too far in what I said and wrote.

However, many of the lessons of that course have stuck with me and I have taken much of it on board subsequently. Phrases such as 'vice versa' may be straightforward to you but they are 'all Greek' to others, to coin a phrase...

The essence of the recent advice is surely simply to ensure that no one feels at a disadvantage when they speak to you or read something you have written.

I still bear the scar of a summer revision course which included hideous children from private schools who brayed derisively when I pronounced the word 'quasi' wrong - as far as they were concerned. It's little things like this which can sap the confidence of people we surely want to be engaging with and making them feel more confident in their dealings with officialdom.

To cut to the chase, would you use phrases such as 'vice versa' or 'ad nauseaum' in your Focus leaflets?

David Rundle said...

W&W: no, I wouldn't use vice versa or ad nauseam (or ad infinitum) in a Focus -- though I couldn't imagine a case when any of those would fit into a story! I would also not use 'eg', 'etc' or 'ie', though those I would consider to be standard in English. And that's part of what I'm saying: some Latin phrases are common now in English. Some English words are less well-known and just as distancing as anything from one of the 'dead' languages.

I do see the point that it is unlikely that a Latin tag in a Council document will help comprehension, but it's not because it's Latin but because, if you forgive a latinate term, it's arcane. Not all Latin terms are, and many non-latinate English words are.


Tom Papworth said...

I happen to like antediluvian language and hope that it does not become permanently moribund.

I've always seen the Plain English campaign and those who criticise others for using of the gamut of our language to be the outriders of Newspeak. How long will it be before the compilers of the OED are yearly proclaiming proudly that the new edition has fewer words than that which came before?

wit and wisdom said...

Our beautiful language can thrive in a number of areas, not least the wonderful new world of the internet.

The point of this latest assault on latin is that it and other esoteric language should be avoided in documents which are designed to inform and help people, which should be simple and clear.

This doesn't preclude any amount of dead language quoting in literature of all kinds but it will mean that Mrs Miggins can understand the local council's housing policy.

Stephanie said...

The directive is about useful little devices like “eg” and “ie” (which arguably should have stops to show they are abbreviations). Slightly more esoteric, but very useful, are “viz” and “sic”. These kind of words are almost never spoken, but written, so one does not need to know exactly how to pronounce them. (And in any case, if you have learnt Latin, you are more likely to pronounce them wrongly: you will have been taught to pronounce “sic” as “seek” rather than “sick”, for example.)

Oxford city council uses the term “sui generis” for planning applications that do not fit into any specific category. This kind of expression is a bit trickier; but if you don’t know what it means, you can use a dictionary or Wikipedia.

If people can text things like “h&s off”, where & (the stylized Latin “et”) replaces the letters a, n, and d, they have proved that they can well cope with the odd scrap of Latin. QED.

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