Latin’s the Perfect Language for a Tweet, or Even an Emailum

We can do chairs and tables in Latin, because Romans had them. But what about 'hot pants'?

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The Latin for “tweet” is pîpo, so there is a certain ring to Papa pîpat: for that, remarkably, is what the Pope is doing to some 200,000 followers.

Since one of the things that is always said about Latin is that it is a very “economical” language, this would seem to make sense for the limited number of words that a tweet allows. Latin has no equivalent for “the”, uses “a” rarely, and expresses phrases with one word for which English uses a preposition (puellae = “of/to/for the girl”); further, its verb forms make limited use of personal pronouns and auxiliaries (pîpat = “he/she/it tweets, is tweeting, does tweet”).

The result is indeed a powerful brevity: salus populi suprema lex esto, said Cicero: “let the security of the people be the highest law” – five words for 10. Medieval lawyers were not so sure about the security of the people: fiat iustitia, ruat caelum, they averred: “let justice be done, though the heavens fall in” – four words for nine.

The problem is that conceptual words like iustitia are pretty double-edged. Does “justice” mean the same thing to us as iustitia did to a Roman? The problems obviously increase when poets are at work. And precisely the same applies to translating English into Latin, only more so, and at the most mundane level too.

We can do chairs and tables in Latin, because Romans had them. But what about “hot pants”? Brevissimae bracae femineae – “very short female trousers” – is the Vatican’s answer, according to its official Latin/English dictionary, losing entirely the implications of “hot”. “Interpol” is publicae securitatis custos internationalis, a good shot but losing the idea of the police, of which Romans knew nothing. Things get more difficult with “hot-dog”: pastillum botello fartum, “a [sacrificial] cake stuffed with a small sausage”. Really? It’s worse than the Académie Française’s efforts to translate English neologisms.

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