Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Dialogue with Latin

In my latest novel, In Saecula Saeculorum, a group of high school students have been unwittingly prepared to go back in time to Ancient Rome. They are sent on an important mission crucial to the survival of the planet. Once back in time, they will be speaking Latin with natives on a regular basis.

The Latin words I include in the dialogue of the novel are designed to lend authenticity to the exchanges, while not being off-putting to people who have never studied Latin. (Even so, the novel really will help Latin students solidify key phrases and vocabulary.)

I needed to make several important language decisions as I included the Latin, such as how to form basic greetings in Latin despite little original record of these things. I have my students ask me all the time, for instance, "Dr. Massey, How do you say 'Good Morning' in Latin?"

And I answer truthfully, we honestly don't know. Personally, I am big on the notion that Latin is not really a dead language at all. It evolved naturally into several quite robust living languages widely spoken today. And those living dialects of Latin are the best window into what was going on in the parent.

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Let's take 'Good Morning' as an example. If we compare several of the living dialects, I believe we can reconstruct a probable Latin original.

Buongiorno (Italian)
Bună ziua (Romanian) In practice, bună dimineața is used for 'Good Morning')
Bonjour (French)
Buenos días (Spanish)

Only Spanish has pluralized the exchange. So in my novel, I have the students use the phrase Bona Dies for Good Morning.

Students of Latin are frequently taught that the words for 'yes' and 'no' are ita vero and minime respectively.

Again, I'm big on letting the living dialects have the larger vote on what the true spoken register was up to in ancient times.

'Yes' in our modern dialects is:

(Italian)
da (Romanian) I published an article in which I argue that Romanian da is descended from Latin ita.
oui (French) Si, however, is an emphatic word for 'yes' in French
(Spanish)

The Latin word Sic is the antecedent of in the living dialects. And it was a functional word for 'yes' in ancient times (See Terence, Phormio 813). And so, In Saecula Saeculorum uses the word Sic for 'yes' throughout.

By the same token, there is unanimity as to how Latin said 'no' as witnessed by the living dialects.

no (Italian)
nu (Romanian)
non (French)
no (Spanish)

And non was also used in ancient times (See Terence, Phormio 211). As a result, Non is how you say 'no' in my novel In Saecula Saeculorum. 

To see how I introduce Latin dialogue into the novel, check out an excerpt from the beginning of the novel.