Anti-Latin P.C. poppycock

« previous post | next post »

Robert James Hargrave has pointed out to Language Log that several regional councils in England are prohibiting their employees from using “elitist” Latinate phrases like “bona fide” or “vice versa” The Daily Telegraph has an article about it. I quote:

Bournemouth Council, which has the Latin motto Pulchritudo et Salubritas, meaning beauty and health, has listed 19 terms it no longer considers acceptable for use.

This includes bona fide, eg (exempli gratia), prima facie, ad lib or ad libitum, etc or et cetera, ie or id est, inter alia, NB or nota bene, per, per se, pro rata, quid pro quo, vis-a-vis, vice versa and even via.

Its list of more verbose alternatives, includes “for this special purpose”, in place of ad hoc and “existing condition” or “state of things”, instead of status quo.

In instructions to staff, the council said: “Not everyone knows Latin. Many readers do not have English as their first language so using Latin can be particularly difficult.”

I suppose one must applaud, however limply, the thought of council bureaucrats worrying about the needs of employees who are immigrants from Poland or Lithuania or Nigeria who might be perplexed by odd bits of Latin-derived jargon in memos. But this really smacks of the sort of P.C. nonsense that brings down ridicule on the heads of honest folk working to reduce prejudice.

The first four things that seem to me pathetic about the above story are:


  1. there is surely nothing elitist about via or vice versa or even ad hoc;
  2. nobody needs to care about the etymologies since they could just as well have come from other languages (and vis-a-vis actually did: it’s an 18th-century borrowing from French);
  3. helping staff to learn the words and phrases needed for the job seems more appropriate than trying to force other staff to censor their vocabulary; and
  4. if you do decide to censor and simplify, there is no reason to start with renaissance Latin borrowings rather than Greek compound words like neurophysiology or photosynthesis, or for that matter all words longer than four syllables.

We need not worry too much; widespread mocking of the councils involved has already begun. I doubt very much whether the useful preposition via is doomed.



57 Comments

  1. Mark P said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    But these expressions are so common in English that for all intents they are English. Just like the many, many other English words that originated in other languages.

  2. Stephen Jones said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

    This is incredibly stupid. Most of the foreign words have become standard English words, as their frequent misspellings (e.g. persay/i>) show. Some, such as a prima facie case have a definite specialized meaning. Are they going to rewrite all the contracts to get rid of pro rata even when it is used as a regular English verb, (payments will be pro-rataed)? And as for finding a substitute for that most over-used of abbreviations, etc, would it not be better to teach the rule of thumb for its correct use (you need three specific examples before it is clear what class etc is referring to)?

  3. Copernicus said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

    Wait a minute. What’s it got to do with employees from Lithuania? The article talks about communicating with members of the public, which is likely at least occasionally to involve members of minority communities who didn’t benefit from a classical education. I can’t see anything wrong with using plain English, the plainer the better when it comes to communications from a local council, some of which historically don’t have too good a track record at effective communication. The rest of the story is merely Telegraph sneering. Shame on you for joining in.

    [GKP: I take the point that it may be the general public they are thinking of, rather than fellow council employees. But on “plain English”, I think my point may have been missed. I’m saying that words like via and etc. and ad hoc already are plain English. They aren’t Latin any more. Targeting jargon is fine — I’m not in favor of official gobbledegook. But targeting it by reference to its ethnic origin is ridiculous.]

  4. Tom Williams said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    Did the council say they were getting rid of them because they’re “elitist”, or because staff didn’t know the meanings? No. It’s because people don’t understand them – effectively, they’re jargon. They can’t be figured out from ‘first principles’ of basic English. Lots of people the council serve and need to communicate with them simply won’t understand inter alia or ex officio. And many people confuse e.g. with i.e.. Not because they’re Latin (though it doesn’t help), just because people aren’t good with abbreviations.

    The same people who moan constantly about political correctness moan about councils using jargon – but try and get rid of some jargon that they like and they’re up in arms about it.

    So, against your four points I’d say:

    [i] there is surely nothing elitist about via or vice versa or even ad hoc;
    Plenty of people won’t understand ad hoc (via and vice versa I’d expect almost everyone to know, but even with them there might be some problems). And there are definitely people who won’t understand other terms on that list.

    [ii] nobody needs to care about the etymologies since they could just as well have come from other languages (and vis-a-vis actually did: it’s an 18th-century borrowing from French);

    Indeed they could have done. But there aren’t many other languages where odd little phrases are commonly used in English council-speak in the same way. No one throws in phrases in Russian or Arabic that could just as easily be expressed in English.

    [iii] helping staff to learn the words and phrases needed to the job seems more appropriate than trying to force other staff to censor their vocabulary;

    It’s not staff who have the problem, it’s the readership. Which is tens of thousands of people covering the full range of education, background, language, and so on. Who need to be communicated with effectively about matters of serious importance. Claiming it as ‘censorship’ is absurd. It’s a corporate style guide designed to ensure that everyone can understand the council’s communications.

    and [iv] if you do decide to censor and simplify, there is no reason to start with renaissance Latin borrowings rather than Greek compound words like neurophysiology or photosynthesis, or for that matter all words longer than four syllables.

    When was the last time a council document mentioned neurophysiology or photosynthesis? Or used words longer than four syllables, for that matter? This is just one of many ways councils try to ensure their communications are accessible to those they serve.

    [GKP: The remark I added to the previous comment applies here as well.]

  5. Lil said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    While your hypothetical immigrant from Nigeria might indeed have trouble with Latin borrowings, I believe it’s less true for the other two nations. In fact, it might actually be easier for an immigrant from mainland Europe to understand those Latin phrases than their English equivalents – simply because those very Latin phrases are commonly used in the same written form in many other languages. Of course if someone didn’t pay attention at school, and doesn’t read books or newspapers, they might have trouble understanding “ad hoc” or “status quo”, but that’s true of ill-educated people whether they are immigrants or native English speakers. Even tabloids use “vice versa” or “vis-a-vis”! I find this whole policy mind-boggling.

  6. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    From the Telegraph article:

    Amber Valley Council, in Derbyshire, has told staff it is no longer acceptable to use language “that portrays once sex as subordinate to the other”.

    Staff have been instructed to say “synthetic” rather than “man made”, “lay person” instead of “lay man”, “people in general” in place of “man in the street”, “one person show” rather than “one man show” and “ancestors” instead of “forefathers”.

    Dear me -what about these (ultimately or as intermediary) Latin-derived words:

    synthetic, lay, person, people, general, ancestor

    to say nothing of “street”?

    How is one to be pure, between the Scylla of elitism and the Charybdis of sexism?
    (Oops – I mean, between a rock and a hard place -oops again, can’t use “place” …)

  7. Tom Williams said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    Oh, and incidentally, if it’s such PC nonsense, and if EVERYONE can understand these Latin tags, why does the Economist – not exactly a liberal-PC magazine, and one with a very well educated readership – also tell its staff (in the section of its style guide devoted to jargon, no less)

    Try not to use foreign words and phrases unless there is no English alternative, which is unusual (so a year or per year, not per annum; a person or per person, not per capita; beyond one’s authority, not ultra vires; and so on).

    Clearly they too are censoring their writers’ vocabulary. It’s a disgrace.

    (I’m aware my tone may come across as angry here. It’s meant to. I’m actually really pissed off at people who think it’s more important that councils write elegantly and eruditely than that the people who often are most in need of council services – the poorly educated, the recent immigrant, the just-not-very-bright – should, God forbid, actually be able to understand council communications.)

  8. Terry Hunt said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

    I was thinking of sending Bournemouth Council a copy of Poul Anderson’s ‘Uncleftish Beholding’ and asking if that was what they had in mind.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

    I’d really like to know the full background. Bashing organisations on the basis of perceived PC-ness is one of the hobbies of right-leaning UK newspapers.

    So do we know if was this an isolated edict not to use Latin (which is, for the reasons you say, daft) or a subsection cherry-picked by the Telegraph of broader guidelines to avoid obscure terms (far more defensible)? And what are they talking about: internal communication (for readers used to legalese) or communication to the public?

    Of the list on offer, I wouldn’t rate “prima facie”, “ad libitum”, “id est”, “per se”, “inter alia”, “ad hoc”, “ergo”, “QED”, “status quo” and “ex officio” as remotely suitable for documents intended for unsophisticated readers.

  10. Martin said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    http://gareth-rees.livejournal.com/18175.html

    may be of interest for those wondering how this gets to be a story in the first place.

  11. Adam said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    Furthermore:

    Bournemouth Council must correct inaccurate reporting in several national media.

    The Council has not banned any Latin words or phrases. Two years ago, we issued advice to our staff to encourage plain, appropriate and easily-understood language. This includes considering whether or not various phrases, including jargon and Latin, are appropriate for the particular audience that the information is aimed at.

    http://www.bournemouth.gov.uk/News/press_office/Press_Releases/October/Inaccuratereports.asp

  12. Ellen K. said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

    Tom Williams: Note that “per” is in the Bournemouth Council’s list of words not to use, but is something the Economist lists as okay. It’s not that there aren’t Latin Phrases that it’s a good idea to avoid because folks won’t understand them. It’s that a number of items on that is have become standard English.

  13. Tom Williams said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

    Ellen K: Yup, different organizations disagree on exactly which words are appropriate.

    For what it’s worth, the Guardian style guide generally has no problem with Latin and other foreign phrases – but does suggest that per shouldn’t be used (and certainly not combined with English, except in miles per hour; so a head preferred, then per capita, and not per head). Bill Bryson’s Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which was originally written as guidance for his colleagues when he was a sub at the Times, has much the same guidance.

    But different organizations disagreeing on exactly what’s appropriate for their audience and their publication is exactly what one would expect. It’s certainly not “the sort of P.C. nonsense that brings down ridicule on the heads of honest folk working to reduce prejudice”.

  14. Mo said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

    Gosh, I’m quite surprised to see the mighty Log adding its weight to the reactionary drivel spouted by the Torygraph. Different vocabulary registers are appropriate for different types of communication, and surely officialdom communicating with citizens — when the English skill of the recipient is unknown, and the importance of comprehension paramount — uncontroversially calls for the clearest and most straightforward register.

    [GKP: If I see too many more comments implying that I am some kind of embittered old reactionary Daily Telegraph reader, I’m going to have to ask someone to step outside…]

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    It’s true that quite a lot of articles in the Telegraph would in Usenet terms be described as trolls.
    We may have been feeding this one.

  16. Mark F. said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    It’s interesting to me that some people seem to associate the understanding of these terms with having a classical education. Do most of the people in Britain using these terms have a classical education? I wouldn’t think so; I know that’s not true in the US.

    It certainly is preposterous to object to “etc.” as a difficult foreignism; I think the Economist gives better examples.

  17. Chris said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

    No one throws in phrases in Russian or Arabic that could just as easily be expressed in English.

    This idea lacks a certain je ne sais quoi… maybe it’s just not in tune with the Zeitgeist, or something. Oh well, que sera, sera.

    I exaggerate for comic effect, of course, but despite my inability to come up with the two languages you specifically named, I think you get the point. English borrows words and phrases from other languages all the time, and attempting to push back the tide of linguistic imports is futile. Or ridiculous. (Although pretending to do so for effect can be quite wonderful – as Uncleftish Beholding demonstrates. “Ymirstuff” is my particular favorite, although it took me a while to figure out.)

    If English speakers had already had satisfactory short equivalents for per and via, we wouldn’t have bothered importing the Latin ones. Similar remarks apply to the more obscure terms like quid pro quo, and jargon like pro rata – they survive because there’s no other equally concise way to express them.

    However, Adam’s point is well taken – the article that sparked this response may well have been a distortion of the Council’s actual policy and intentions.

  18. Steve said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    This does need to be seen in its political context. The Telegraph is well-known as being the most right-wing of British newspapers, and is also notoriously xenophobic and anti-immigration. Consequently, it likes to attack what it perceives as left-wing councils pandering to foreigners, members of the working class, and other undesirables. It is also usually fairly cavalier in its attitude to the truth in such matters. As has already been noted, nobody has suggested banning useful Latin phrases from English. It has merely been suggested that some members of the public (those whom the councils are supposed to serve, NOT their employees) might find some pieces of jargon difficult. Admittedly, ‘via’ ‘vice versa’ and ‘etc’ are not particularly difficult, but others could cause problems, (and I suspect that it might be the Telegraph journalist who supplied those particular examples.) In any case, this is a disagreement about politics, not language, and the Telegraph has largely invented the linguistic issue in order to attack its political opponents. Language Log is usually pretty good at spotting such things when they happen in an American political context. It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, if it is less so in this instance.

  19. Tom Williams said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    Chris: I’ve yet to find a council that talks about je ne sais quoi or the Zeitgeist in its communications with the public. If there were any, I’d not be very pleased with them either. It’s not about purging foreign words from the English language, it’s about purging them from important documents that need to be accessible to all.

    (Incidentally: apparatchik, gulag and intelligentsia, among quite a few others, from Russian; again, not ones I’d expect a council to use. Most words in English that come from Arabic are now very common and pretty much considered part of ‘English’ in a way that, for example, versa isn’t. Alcohol, algebra, algorithm…

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    Chris . obscure terms like quid pro quo
    That one’s not terribly obscure these days unless someone’s been in a cave and never seen Silence of the Lambs (YouTube link NSFW).

  21. Claire Bowern said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    The rubbish bins in my city have Latin on them … but I guess many people think that New Haven is elitist.

  22. stuart said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    This is a ridiculous story that looks like it’s been put together by combing council archives for messages vaguely related to the use of language; there’s no information as to whether these words are banned in all contexts or just in a single department or document. Certainly, if you google bournemouth.gov.uk for these supposedly-banned phrases you find many uses, some from this year (the story is based on archive documents, not a new policy, so in the absence of any specific details about timing, I assume this policy is not so fresh as to be invisible).

    This actually a fairly mild restriction compared to people like George Orwell who deplored the use not just of Latin words but those English words with Latinate roots.

    (As an aside, perhaps Mary Beard’s comments about ethnic cleansing should be shown to newly-arrived refugees struggling with the language, to see what they think.)

  23. Nick Z said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    It seems pretty clear that on this occasion Language Log has erred in taking the Torygraph at face value. Note that the words “elitist” and “discriminatory” are in scare quotes in the headline, implying that they were used by Bournemouth Council’s style guide, but do not appear at all in the text quoted, and probably don’t in the full text. This, of course, allows the Telegraph to completely misrepresent the facts.

  24. Lugubert said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    At languagehat.com, I wrote

    “Basically, a very sound idea, that more levels everywhere should adapt.

    In Sweden, there have since several years ago been a tendency to not cleanse language, but encouraging “writing clearly”. Already from the beginning we weren’t that infested by Latin, but the efforts address many expressions that are outdated in normal speech or smell of legalese.

    In 1993, the Cabinet Office produced a Black List of (“Swedish”) words and expressions and how they should be replaced.

    When we entered the EEC, and later on joining the EG, there were recommendations for translators not to follow the medieval (my label…) style of the original documents when translating, but to break up long sentences, use a more everydayish language, and generally concentrate on comprehensibility to the general public.

    Goodbye to the EG ideal of “please change the second word of the third paragraph in …”. Without resorting to the encumbent original, such requests could easily result in selecting the wrong word, leading to a totally different version. Supplying the complete old vs. the new paragraph would be (at least more) unambiguous.

    Examples of EEC Latin to be avoided in Swedish: ex officio, bona fide, a posteriori, mutatis mutandis, de jure et de facto, pro rata. We are also advised to translate any French in English texts into Swedish, like the aforementioned vis-à-vis, and travaux péparatoires, l’acquis etc. ;-)”

    I’m a professional translator. Very professional. I specialize in difficult texts. (Didya get the reference to Tom Lehrer?) I translate from several languages into Swedish. As Swedish as ever possible. No etc., I write osv. No e-mail – I insist on e-post, and customers who don’t like Swedish will have to make the change themselves. And so on.

  25. Gareth Rees said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

    Sorry to see you fall for this. I think Steve above has the right analysis: there is a strand of British journalism that likes to bait local government for doing its job. Typically this baiting takes the form of picking up a fairly trivial detail — here, Bournemouth Borough Council’s guidelines for communicating simply and clearly with people who may not be highly educated or native English speakers — and exaggerating it until it becomes something stupid enough for sensible people to get up in arms about — here, a ban on Latin.

    This “controversy” then becomes the excuse to pour scorn on local government in toto, as in this Telegraph piece by Gerald Warner:

    “Councillors and their staff are the most ignorant and pretentious people in Britain. They are so superfluous to any conceivable requirement, the constraints of the English language inhibit adequate expression of how unnecessary, unwanted, useless, unfit for purpose and generally de trop (whoops!) these municipal excrescences are. These priggish, politically correct, climate change-obsessed, social engineering, provincial Hitlers (forgive me for not coming off the fence and saying what I really think) are as useful as a code of ethics in a New Labour Cabinet.”

    [GKP: A very nice example of the Telegraph‘s baiting of public servants. Hitlers! It really makes you want to get out there and serve your local community, doesn’t it? Make no mistake about it, the commenters are right to note that the Telegraph (and other Conservative-leaning) newspapers in Britain are famous for their unjustifiedly bitter attacks on government officials. And they use dishonest headlines that have quotation marks around things that nobody said. However, I continue to insist that if you want to eliminate unclear jargon, you should not make Latin origin one of your identification criteria. Via and per are English prepositions now. They can be learned just as easily as any other preposition. English has done so much borrowing from Latin that hunting down Latinisms is not the way to start a war on jargon. That’s all I’m saying.]

  26. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

    Of course, it’s all about whom you’re writing for. You should write to your audience, and in this case, the audience is the general public, right down to the semi-literate.

    But there is a balance to be attempted here between being accommodating and reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. Calls to mind the time that a number of outrage citizens called for a public apology — or even a resignation — from a politician (a governor, I think) who used the word “niggardly.” They didn’t know what the word meant, but he was accused of racism.

  27. GAC said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

    Just a little note I have — I had no idea what the expansion of “eg” was. I didn’t need to, I learned from context that it was presenting examples. The fact that it’s apparently “free examples” (I’m guessing from Spanish cognates) doesn’t change that for me.

    Of course, looking through the comments, I also notice that I had no idea about “je ne sais quoi” before I just saw it written here. Here I was thinking it was some abstract unspeakable quality (as it is used in English), which makes it all the more hilarious when I see the actual phrase and decipher the original French.

  28. stuart said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

    When it comes to UK civil service language, Sir Ernest Gowers is surely the ultimate authority. The Complete Plain Words, 3rd ed, says “You can usually avoid inter alia, per annum, prima facie, ad hoc, pro rata, ceteris paribus, mutatis mutandis, con amore and carte blanche … But it would be pedantic to insist on a complete prohibition … The important thing, particularly in official writing, is to put the reader’s convenience before the writer’s self-gratification. When all this has been said (and there is much more that could be) the basic rule ‘avoid them if you can’ remains the safest guide.” (pp 74-5 in Penguin)

  29. wally said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

    Hmm. So is it ironic that one of the common themes in the comments arguing here for using only English words by the government agencies, the rather quaint notion that government communications should be understandable by the intended audience, is one of the same arguments I would give against the English only movement in the US?

  30. marie-lucie said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

    @wally:

    I don’t think this is the same situation at all. The English-only movement is against official use of languages other than English: meaning whole texts written entirely in Spanish, Chinese, etc, which are the languages of largish immigrant communities in the US.

    The British municipal employees urged to use only English words are not writing in languages other than English, and they are only asked to refrain from peppering texts addressed to the general public with words and phrases in Latin (not currently spoken by any community), which are found mostly in formal, legal or administrative registers. Moreoever, some of the phrases may be known to speakers in their oral form (“etcetera”) but not in the abbreviated written form (etc).

  31. Jason F. Siegel said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

    @ Marie-Lucie,

    No, Wally is right. The idea is about writing in a way that your audience is most likely to understand. For that reason, it is a possible argument against English only.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 7:30 pm

    Perhaps I did not express myself properly: I am not arguing for the English-only movement, but the Bournemouth, etc situation is a different one. Even if some documents are being provided in some other languages, it does not mean that even English speakers would not have trouble with the Latin words embedded in the English texts.

  33. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

    British local governments, or at least those with large communities that may not speak much English, do publish a bunch of stuff in other languages. See Salford (part of Greater Manchester) : http://www.salford.gov.uk/languages/urdu.htm is Urdu, with Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Gujarati and Punjabi available, and Engish, with links to relevant pdf documents on council taxes and benefits.

  34. Troy S. said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

    @GAC: though I see where the Spanish speaker might think “exempli gratia” to mean “free examples” (gratis is Spanish for free), it’s actually “for the sake of example” where gratia + a genitive is a special construction meaning “for the sake of.” An illustrative example is MGM’s motto: “ars gratia artis” – “art for the sake of art.”

  35. Robert James Hargrave said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

    “No one throws in phrases in Russian or Arabic that could just as easily be expressed in English.”

    “apparatchik,” “intelligentsia” for Russian
    “jihad” for Arabic

    My apologies; I know nothing about the Telegraph or its reputation. This link had been passed on to me for elsewhere.

    If accurate, however, the council is prohibiting “etc,” “vice versa” and “via.” Hardly foreign words.

  36. Richard Ashdowne said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

    I read this story with a heavy heart, not just as an academic in linguistics but as a classicist who believes passionately in ensuring that classics, Latin and Greek are options that are as widely available as possible in education.

    Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the various views espoused here and elsewhere about the intelligibility or otherwise of Latin (and pseudo-Latin) words and expressions used in English in any register, I think there are some serious points to be made, relating to the stereotyped and persistent perception of anything that is thought to be Latin as belonging only to some rich socially distant elite, possibly highly intelligent (because Latin is perceived as a difficult language to learn, since it is perceived as only being taught in very traditional, academic schools) and cut off from the everyday lives and language of the ordinary population. I caricature the stereotype, but not unfairly. However unjustified it may be, the negative perception of Latin as elitist is highly pervasive and it is deeply damaging to classics as academic discipline.

    While no sane person could dispute the bald facts in terms of the current provision of opportunities (in England, at least) to learn the classical languages in schools – they’re much more widely available in independent, private schools than in state schools – nor the consequent effect on the distribution of familiarity with Latin (in general, rather than these phrases, of which most or all are indeed borrowings fully integrated into English) across the population, there is hope among classicists that the tide is gradually changing: Latin is now both more widely available in all kinds of school than for many years and more popular among schoolchildren than ever. What’s more, this provision is often in terms of voluntary after-school or lunchtime clubs, so-called ‘twilight’ or ‘broom-cupboard classics’, and reflects a genuine enthusiasm for the study of the ancient world, classical culture, and Latin (and Greek) language. The efforts of the Cambridge Schools Classics Project and the Primary Latin Project stand out for their massive achievements in this area. Progress in relegating the elitism of classics to history is remarkable at university level, too: a number of classics faculties across the UK offer courses that do not require either Latin or Greek as a prerequisite and yet provide the opportunity to acquire a high level of proficiency in one or both during the course. In Oxford and Cambridge these courses are at the heart of their classics faculties’ commitment to ensuring any limit in the range of opportunities a student had earlier in life does not stand in the way of studying the subject at university level, and obviously this furthers their aim to secure the long-term future of a subject which would otherwise be under threat.

    Given all this, it is sad when stories of this kind appear in the media (another Latin word, of course), falsely giving the impression that Latin, the language, is elitist in itself. There is nothing elitist about the language itself: elitism can only exist in the users or non-users of a language and their perceptions of each other. The language may come to symbolise and represent those groups, but no language can itself be elitist. In the case of Latin, whoever spoke it and used it in the ancient or more recent past, they are no longer speaking it or using it now; yet there remain strong impressions of these people as an elite, impressions which are partly supported by the continuing (if diminishing) division between those who have had and taken the chance to encounter the language and those who have not.

    Reports of this kind that link Latin and elitism set back significantly the work of classicists who are working strenuously to reach out and ensure that anyone who wants to can have the opportunity to learn Latin and Greek. The setback arises because parents, teachers, and, under their influence, children too, can all easily become prejudiced against even looking at Latin (and Greek) by such headlines and stories which portray Latin as something that they therefore then perceive as being ‘not for them’. Children are either still denied the opportunity to pursue these options (‘it’s not something this school ought to offer’) or discouraged from pursuing them (‘you don’t want to take that option at school’). Once minds are closed we risk the elitism re-establishing itself, and with that comes potentially the effective demise of an academic discipline. I must conclude by pointing out that I don’t for one moment believe that a single news story like this can have a major effect, but prejudices benefit from reinforcement: every story reported in this fashion adds a little to the burden of those trying to dispel the myth that classics is only for some rich, highly educated elite and to open everyone’s eyes to what classics has to offer to them.

  37. Peter said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 10:57 pm

    The Guardian newspaper (UK) said it best two decades ago, in response to official moves in France banning the use of English words in French.

    “Pommes frites with everything”
    from The Guardian Weekly (1989-01-08)

    “This concern with lingustic purity is clearly inspired by France’s envy of Anglo-Saxon practice, which, as is well known, sets its face like flint against all overseas importations. Regular visitors to London report with awe on the capacity of the English of all social classes for keeping the language clean. From the blase habitues of the London clubs – raconteurs, bon viveurs, hommes d’affaires – with their penchant for bonhomie and camaraderie, through the soi-disant bien pensants of the passe liberal press to the demi-monde of the jeunesse doree, where ingenues in risque decolletages dine a deux, tete a tete and a la carte with their louche nouveau riche fiances in brassieries and estaminets, pure English is de rigueur, and the mildest infusion of French considered de trop, deja vu, cliche, devoid of all cachet, a linguistic melange or bouillabaisse, a cultural cul-de-sac.

    The English want no part of this outre galere, no role in this farouche charade, no rapprochement with this compote. They get no frisson from detente with diablerie. And long may it remain so. “A bas les neologismes!” as you often hear people cry late at night on the Earl’s Court Road. “

  38. Peter said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

    Richard Ashdowne: I was once told that university enrolments in Latin and Greek courses in New Zealand had risen dramatically following the filming there of the TV series, “Xena: Warrior Princess”. TV and film may provide another impetus to increasing interest and enrolments in classics.

  39. dr pepper said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 1:03 am

    Trolling or not, i think there’s a big fallacy in the concept. Namely, to someone with little or no fluency, *all* the words in a new language are strange, regardless of origin. As a native speaker of english i have a certain feeling for germanic derived words being, on the average shorter and chunkier, while the latin derived ones seem longer and more fluid, but what does that mean to an immigrant still learning them by rote?

  40. GAC said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 1:04 am

    @Troy S.

    Thanks for clearing that up. I wasn’t entirely sure what the translation should be. Of course, still points to the idea that I can have no idea what the Latin even is and still know what the designation means in English.

  41. Rick S said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 5:18 am

    Most of the Telegraph examples have, indeed, become integrated into English, but that isn’t the whole story. To an English speaker who doesn’t know the original Latin, the multi-word phrases are idioms: their meanings can not be deduced from their component words (which, in general, don’t have independent English meanings), and have been/have to be learned by rote.

    Discouraging the use of these Latin origin phrases should then be just a special case of discouraging any idiom, jargon, or term of art which might not be familiar to the undereducated. Would the detractors of this policy be so quick to defend phrases like “out of hand”, “power of attorney”, and “secured debt” in documents targeted to this audience?

    What makes the policy seem absurd is that, in confusing words-of-Latin-origin with words-unfamiliar-to-the-less-educated, the councillors seem then to have gone on a witch hunt and deprecated perfectly good common words such as “etc”, “per”, and “vice versa”, which any native would know and which ESL people ought to learn right away. But how can anyone really prefer inter alia over among others?

  42. Gareth Rees said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 5:41 am

    sad when stories of this kind appear in the media, falsely giving the impression that Latin, the language, is elitist in itself

    I agree with you about this. But it’s clear that at least some of the people pushing this story are doing so because they are happy that knowledge of Latin remains a marker of status and privilege, because as former students of Latin they benefit from this privilege.

    Gerald Warner again: “Latin is a useful litmus test. It separates the civilised, as in past centuries, from the Goths and Vandals.”

  43. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 11:11 am

    @Chris
    You wrote:
    “If English speakers had already had satisfactory short equivalents for per and via, we wouldn’t have bothered importing the Latin ones. Similar remarks apply to the more obscure terms like quid pro quo, and jargon like pro rata – they survive because there’s no other equally concise way to express them.”

    In high school Latin these many years ago, I learned that “tit for tat” was the English translation of “quid pro quo.” Indeed, that equivalent was so widely accepted that H. Allen Smith made a running joke of it in his comic novel, “Rhubarb,” using “quid” to mean “tit,” as in “She’s got a great pair of quids.”

  44. Stephen Jones said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

    Rick S has summed it up. The Sun may use a vocabulary of 400 words but is harder for a foreigner to understand than the Telegraph, because it combines those words in idiomatic phrases that present difficulty to the second language learner.

    The reason local councils love to do this was given by Mark Steel in his memoirs of 80s London councils. They could do very little about racism, or sexism or inequality, so took to passing edicts banning words which made them both seem both important and feel better.

    Of course the person doing the banning is ignorant even by local council standards and the result is that they make a pig’s ear of it, since they include words and phrases that have been part of standard English for decades or even centuries.

    And to use style guides as a defence, particularly the ridiculously amateurish Guardian Style Guide, is a non-starter. Style Guides are publications which, apart from any real use they may serve, give the author unprecedented freedom to impose his most ridiculous personal peeves and prejudices (having a committee merely trebles the malfeasance as each member of the committee adds some of their own, whilst agreeing a quid pro quo with the peeves of the other members).

  45. Tim Silverman said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 1:48 pm

    @Ralph Hickok: I don’t consider tit for tat to be at all an adequate translation for quid pro quo, since tit for tat implies an exchange of harms, while quid pro quo implies an exchange of benefits, at least in my experience.

  46. Numbers from Google said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    Results 1 – 10 of about 49,800 from bournemouth.gov.uk.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 3,290 from bournemouth.gov.uk for etc.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 3,100 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “e.g.”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 1,890 from bournemouth.gov.uk for i.e..
    Results 1 – 10 of about 60 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “vice versa”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 55 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “pro rata”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 47 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “bona fide”.
    Results 1 – 9 of 9 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “inter alia”.
    Results 1 – 4 of about 2 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “prima facie”.
    Results 1 – 3 of 3 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “ad lib”.
    Results 1 – 2 of 2 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “vis-a-vis”.
    Results 1 – 1 of 1 from bournemouth.gov.uk for “quid pro quo”.
    Your search – site:bournemouth.gov.uk “ad libitum” – did not match any documents

    Results 1 – 10 of about 107,000 from whitehouse.gov.

    Results 1 – 10 of about 3,940 from whitehouse.gov for “etc.”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 4,830 from whitehouse.gov for “e.g.”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 3,680 from whitehouse.gov for “i.e.”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 154 from whitehouse.gov for “vice versa”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 119 from whitehouse.gov for “pro rata”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 128 from whitehouse.gov for “bona fide”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 69 from whitehouse.gov for “inter alia”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 41 from whitehouse.gov for “prima facie”.
    Results 1 – 2 of 2 from whitehouse.gov for “ad lib”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 180 from whitehouse.gov for “vis-a-vis”.
    Results 1 – 10 of about 42 from whitehouse.gov for “quid pro quo”.
    Results 1 – 1 of 1 from whitehouse.gov for “ad libitum”.

  47. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    I once found myself alone with a Portuguese-speaking guide in the Brazilian rainforest. He figured out that I was a biologist, and wanted to share his knowledge of local plants and animals, but he had very little English and I had no Portuguese. After much handwaving he pointed at a plant and said in frustration, “Bromeliad!” and we suddenly realized that we had more Latin in common than anything else.

  48. Ivan said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    Lil said,

    While your hypothetical immigrant from Nigeria might indeed have trouble with Latin borrowings, I believe it’s less true for the other two nations. In fact, it might actually be easier for an immigrant from mainland Europe to understand those Latin phrases than their English equivalents – simply because those very Latin phrases are commonly used in the same written form in many other languages.

    Very true. I would bet that a typical Polish immigrant is much more comfortable with everyday Latin phrases than a typical native British citizen with a comparable level of education. In fact, from what I know about the culture and history of Poland, I have a hunch that if we compared the level of knowledge of common Latin phrases among the general population around the world, Poland would be near the top. Thus, I find it surprising that of all major immigrant groups in the UK, Prof. Pullum chose to use Poles as an example of people who would presumably be “perplexed” by Latin.

    On the other hand, there are significant differences in the repertoire of commonly used Latin phrases in continental Europe and in the Anglosphere. In particular, there are many Latin terms originating from common law that are widely used in formal English, but very rare in many other European languages (prima facie would be one such term).

  49. Ivan said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    Rick S said,

    Discouraging the use of these Latin origin phrases should then be just a special case of discouraging any idiom, jargon, or term of art which might not be familiar to the undereducated. Would the detractors of this policy be so quick to defend phrases like “out of hand”, “power of attorney”, and “secured debt” in documents targeted to this audience?

    What makes the policy seem absurd is that, in confusing words-of-Latin-origin with words-unfamiliar-to-the-less-educated, the councillors seem then to have gone on a witch hunt and deprecated perfectly good common words such as “etc”, “per”, and “vice versa”, which any native would know and which ESL people ought to learn right away.

    I would add that for communication with immigrants and other ESL speakers, there is also the third important case: words that any native knows, no matter how uneducated, but that are still likely to baffle non-native speakers, even highly proficient ones (I know this from personal experience). Many such examples can be found among less common phrasal verbs and in the everyday vocabulary that’s rarely used outside of home. If I were writing something aimed at a wide ESL audience, I’d worry about those more than about Latin phrases and abstruse high-register vocabulary.

  50. Nick said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    Reminds me of a British TV programme recently about people who wondered about their origins in terms of their DNA. The most avid English people, who had started an English society to promote their “Englishness”, were not in fact pure English at all.

    Or was about their British origins? Like most of us with European origins, we are a mixture. So then is our language. In New Zealand we even have polynesian words and phrases as part of our language, plus some aboriginal words. I feel sure this may be so for people in the UK.

  51. James Wimberley said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    It occurs to me that the dictionary should be updated for the paperless age. Why can’t we have dictionary widgets that will offer multilingual entries, at tunable levels of sophistication, when you right-click on a word or phrase in a web page or electronic document? Or when you speak a word into a portable device like a cellphone or PDA?

  52. Brian Cansler said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    If we’re censoring words from Latin, we’ve also got to take out “pro,” “con,” and “contra” because they are pure or abbreviated Latin, and we certainly can’t keep atrocities like “urban,” “rural,” “inhabit,” “hatbitat,” “verb,” “new,” “feminine,” “neutral,” “equal,” “future,” “location,” “history, “Anglo-,” “united,” “states,” “poem,” “ultimate,” “duo,” “dual,” “triple,” “close,” “communal,” “nature,” and countless other words (approximately 60% of the total English lexicon as a low estimate) because they are inextricably tied to Latin. Roman numerals would have to go, too. We’d never want to come across as elitist!

    Sarcasm aside (okay, maybe not…), I have responses to Mr. Williams:

    So, against your four points I’d say:
    …Plenty of people won’t understand ad hoc (via and vice versa I’d expect almost everyone to know, but even with them there might be some problems). And there are definitely people who won’t understand other terms on that list.

    And the uneducated of whom you speak are surely too dumb to use a dictionary, right? Or the internet? Without years of elitist Latin training in a prestigious academy, it’s impossible to know what “ad hoc” means.

    …Indeed they could have done. But there aren’t many other languages where odd little phrases are commonly used in English council-speak in the same way. No one throws in phrases in Russian or Arabic that could just as easily be expressed in English.

    Others have answered this point for me above.

    It’s not staff who have the problem, it’s the readership. Which is tens of thousands of people covering the full range of education, background, language, and so on. Who need to be communicated with effectively about matters of serious importance. Claiming it as ‘censorship’ is absurd. It’s a corporate style guide designed to ensure that everyone can understand the council’s communications.

    According to Dictionary.com, “censor” is defined as “7. to delete (a word or passage of text) in one’s capacity as a censor.” By deleting these words and phrases from use in the company’s pretentiously self-given capacity as a censor, how can it be called anything BUT censorship? Censorship goes beyond the commonest-seen examples like “f***ing” or “s#%t.”

    When was the last time a council document mentioned neurophysiology or photosynthesis? Or used words longer than four syllables, for that matter? This is just one of many ways councils try to ensure their communications are accessible to those they serve.

    The greatest difficulty in language comprehension stems from grammar and style, and never from vocabulary. Dictionaries, as I mentioned above, are wonderful books/websites with literally TONS of words inside them clearly defined. Anyone can find out what the meaning of “eschatology” is, even nonnative English speakers! (No, that word is not located anywhere on this page. I just picked the first uncommon words to pop into my head.) Yet after perusing a few Bournemouth Council documents, I must say that removing “ad hoc” and “via” won’t make their wordy articles any easier to understand for anyone with anything but a high proficiency in English.

  53. the other Mark P said,

    November 6, 2008 @ 11:49 pm

    “apparatchik,” “intelligentsia” for Russian
    “jihad” for Arabic

    These are quite big words. We can find more common ones:

    “Algebra” will henceforth become “Mathematics using operators”

    “Tsar” will be “Emperor of an eastern country”

    “Vodka” will be “White distilled spirits”

    How are these hapless people who don’t know what [i]via[/i] and [i]etc.[/i] mean meant to cope with any word longer than two syllables (probably too technical a term, that.)

  54. Jon W said,

    November 7, 2008 @ 4:35 am

    “How are these hapless people who don’t know what [i]via[/i] and [i]etc.[/i] mean meant to cope with any word longer than two syllables”

    They don’t- Local Authorities provide services to some of the most disadvantaged people in the country, the English which local officials use must be as plain as practicable.

    Officialdom in the UK has a particular fondness for latin borrowings, in a way which it doesn’t with for languages (OK, a bit of Hindi as well, a hangover for the days of Empire- but that’s only generally used between officials and not to members of the public) so it makes sense to single out Latin borrowings for special attention, especially when done, as this was, as part of an overarching campaign to get officials to communicate with the public in a clear and useful way.

  55. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 10, 2008 @ 1:15 am

    Many of these examples are silly in that they’ve become part of standard English, but not all. For some reason, I see a lot of confusion among even native English speakers writing i.e. when they really mean e.g. — and that’s among young scientists writing their first papers, so hardly uneducated people.

  56. Matt said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

    I remember another student at Oxford expressing confusion when I used “vice versa”. The comment was along the lines of, “What? We don’t use Latin like that where I from.” To this day I’m not sure whether she was getting on a hobby horse or genuinely didn’t understand, but clearly she associated Latin phrases with difficulty and pretentiousness. I suspect such attitudes are widespread in the UK, and a local authority entrusted with serving the people will train its staff appropriately. Communication is about what you hear, not what I say – and if the public hear “snobbish and confusing”, it’s the council’s job to change.

  57. Jonathan Westphal said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    The Bournemouth Council really does have a problem. The word “Latin” is a Latin word, though it is used by English. Latium was the place where the language comes from; it includes Rome. So how can the Council ban “Latin” words and phrases without using one? Or perhaps they calculated that the ban will come into effect only after they have issued it, including the word “Latin”. Before the ban, it was OK to say “Latin”, but not after, if the ban is on Latin words. On the other hand, the Council can never explain the policy to anyone, or enforce it, without violating it. Will they say, “words and phrases derived from a language we cannot name because there is about to be a ban on words and phrases derived from that language”? It could be Zulu.

RSS feed for comments on this post