Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews


main index     © Jeff Matthews  entry Oct. 2002

Everything is related to Naples
Number 132 in this series. Link to all items here.


Bank Robbers and Latin

I hope this one is true. The paper reports that two Neapolitan bank robbers trying to pull a heist way up north in Modena were foiled by their inability to speak standard Italian. They explained to the teller that they had box cutters in their pockets and were going to start slicing and dicing if they didn't get lots of those brand new Euros —all of this in a Neapolitan dialect about as intelligible to a bank teller in Modena as Middle High Kurdish. After 3 or 4 more attempts, each one eliciting from the teller responses like "I'm sorry. I don't understand you" or "Do you want to open an account here, sir?" or "Has our automatic teller machine outside gobbled up your credit card? Sorry. Let me call the manager...", the speechless bad-guys fled lootless in their stolen car, later recovered. One witness reports that on the way out of the bank, the one thief called his companion an idiot for not being able to ask for money in real Italian. (Click here for an item on the Neapolitan language.)

That brings to mind a story about the great Senegalese scholar and poet, Léopold Sédar Senghor, president of his nation from 1960–80. During his term of office, he had occasion to pay a state visit to Italy. Unsure of his Italian, the super–erudite Senghor addressed the Italian senate in Latin! He was disappointed when he found out that these neo–Romans no longer possessed even rudimentary comprehension of the language of their forebears. The Italian press was mortified.

I was never much of a Latin scholar at school. I did, however, study a neo–Latin language called Spanish, but by the time the Spanish got around to the language there were no more ablatives, datives or passive participles. That stuff had all been replaced by bull–fights, red wine and Flamenco babes with roses between their teeth. My kind of language.


Later, many years out of school, I did discover an interest in Latin, however, when I came across my first Asterix comic book. Asterix is a Celt warrior who wages funny war against the Roman oppressors in Gaul. Depending on where you buy your comics, Asterix speaks German or French or English, etc. Some enterprising scholar decided to do it up right, because the version I picked up was in Latin. I couldn't read it, of course, but I was intrigued. Then, when I found my first Donald Duck comic in Latin, I became aware of the growing conspiracy to resurrect what to many is a useless language.

Useless? Well, in many European universities as late as the 18th century, Latin was still the language of instruction, and it was the lingua franca of the Roman Catholic church for a long, long time. Even today, the Vatican still generates significant numbers of documents in Latin, and, thus, keeps scholars at work updating the language in order to be able to deal with concepts Caesar never had to worry about. (At a recent Vatican congress dealing with the problems of keeping the language alive, at least as an ecclesiastical medium, reporters from RAI, the Italian State television network, were forced to ask their questions and get their answers in Latin—the interview was subtitled in Italian at the bottom of the screen.) An 18,000–word dictionary of recent coinages has recently been published by the Vatican. Some of the entries:

fax: exemplum simillime expressum
bestseller: liber maxime divenditus
gulag: campus captivis custodiensis
car wash: autocinetorum lavatrix
pinball machine: sphaeriludium electricum nomismate actum

The internet has a number of sites dedicated to the revival of Latin, and one local Neapolitan I know of—who has made said revival his labor of love—comes to the phone with "ego sum"

to portal for literature and language

to main index 

Copyright © 2002 to 2017