Finland's national radio broadcaster pulls the plug on the news in Latin

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During the last few decades, I have served as the "opponent" in several Scandinavian doctoral defenses.  I wore a tuxedo, top hat, and silk socks, plus gleaming black shoes.  Much of the ritual was conducted in Latin, so I was quite aware of the high place accorded that ancient language in Scandinavian academia, especially in Finland, where all of my colleagues, no matter what their field, had received extensive training in Latin already in high school back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.  It seems, however, that Latin education has been rapidly declining since that time.

Now, one of the last holdouts for general knowledge of Latin in Finland is being terminated:

"Requiescat in pace: Finland's Yle radio axes Latin news show after 30 years:  Public broadcaster cancels weekly summary Nuntii Latini as original presenters retire", AFP in Helsinki, The Guardian (6/24/19)

I asked a few of my Finnish colleagues whether they were aware of Nuntii Latini, what they thought of its closing, and whether Latin continues to have a presence in Finnish education and culture.

I.

Yes, indeed! The program was initiated by Tuomo Pekkanen, our Latin teacher at the Helsinki classical lyceum, and continued by his wife Virpi Seppälä-Pekkanen, his former pupil. Thereby it was on the responsibility of Dr Reijo Pitkäranta. Both Tuomo (later professor of Latin at the University of Jyväskylä) and Reijo are excellent users of Latin even in speech. In our Latin tradition the pronunciation follows the historical lines where c means always k, e.g. Cicero = Kikero. It is a pity that the program is discontinued as it was widely listened around the world.

Latin is still taught as the main subject in the few existing classical lyceums. During my school years we could also study Greek as an extra addition. In the general course of deterioration ("modernization") classical subjects are in some danger, but I firmly believe that at least Latin will persist still for long.

II.

I do know the program. Its initiator and long-time editor, Professor Tuomo Pekkanen, is a good friend of mine since my early student days. Tuomo has translated our national epic Kalevala into metrical Latin, this being one of the most exact translations into any language (Tuomo: "the greatest difficulty was in understanding exactly the meaning of the original"). The Pope has decorated him for merits in promoting spoken Latin.

Nuntii Latini requires quite a lot of work, and a very good mastery of Latin. As the old hands retire, it is difficult to find people to replace them, especially nowadays.

When I started university study (Latin, ancient Greek and Sanskrit with comparative Indo-European), there were hundreds of students in Latin classes, as very many high schools offered "short Latin" (3 years) and teacher posts were plentiful. Nowadays Latin is taught practically only in classical lyceums, where it continues to be taught for 7 years (as I had).

III.

Yes, the Finnish efforts, started by professor Tuomo Pekkanen, to reinvigorate Latin are well known, and the news programme Nuntii Latini has been an important part of them. The program has even got recognition from the Vatican. That it was axed now is simply due to the fact that the Finnish broadcasting company is a political organ, and Finland has currently a leftist-feminist-capitalist government which cares little of Latin. Of course, during the last few decades Latin has been eliminated from school curricula and university programmes as well. Uncivilized leaders raise uncivilized people.

Curious about the construction of the name of the Finnish national broadcaster, I asked:  If "Yle" means "general" (?), what is the -is- doing in the middle of the name "Yleisradio"?

Replies:

I.

Yle is an abbreviation for Yleisradio. Yleis- is a compound form for the adjective attribute yleinen 'general, common, public'.

II.

YLE is a non-grammatical truncation of yleis-, from yleinen 'general', which is ultimately derived from yli : ylä 'upper part, over'.

III.

"Yle" does not mean "general" as it is only an abbreviation of the word "yleinen" (general), The oblique stem is consequently "yleis-", e.g., in genetive "yleisen", in partitive "yleistä", as a verb "yleistää" (to generalize).

Incidentally, and by way of contrast to what is happening to Latin in Finland, one of my Finnish colleagues wrote:

I am now in Kyzyl, Tuva Republic. It is wonderful to see how Tuvinian has again got a stronger position in this formerly independent (1921-1944) republic – everyone is speaking it, though you still rarely see it written.

For my part, I am enormously grateful that I was able to take two years of Latin in my small, rural, public high school in East Canton (Osnaburg), Stark County, Ohio back in the late fifties and early sixties.  The benefits of that exposure have lasted until today.  Yet I doubt that today Latin is offered in any public high school in Ohio (maybe a handful of very special ones), and perhaps only in a few public high schools in the nation (Boston Latin School, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School [?] — are there any other public schools in America that still offer Latin?).

"And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek…".  (For a surprising interpretation of this famous line, see here.)

[h.t. Fraser Howie; thanks to several anonymous Finnish colleagues]



34 Comments

  1. SFrankel said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 6:52 am

    A shame – for obvious reasons, the Finns made a natural-sounding differentiation between short and long vowels and gave us a good idea of Latin rhythm. Comparatively few Europeans can do that gracefully, and the so-called "classical" pronunciation taught in schools for English (or French or German) speakers basically ignores it because it's so difficult for us, even though it's the basis for poetic scansion.

  2. Alexander Tievsky said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 7:21 am

    The public high school I attended, part of the Fairfax County, Virginia public school system, offered Latin when I attended in the early 2000s. According to its website, the school still has TWO Latin teachers.

    I took French.

  3. Leslie said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 7:35 am

    I don't think the situation of Latin in public schools is quite so dire. Berkeley High School offers it; so does my husband's alma mater on Long Island.

  4. R. Sanders said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    Are you thinking of Greek? Latin is still taught in a great many (not only high-performing) public schools in the US. Very odd comment.

  5. Avinor said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 7:40 am

    Radio Bremen in Germany continues with its news broadcast in Latin, incidentally having the same title as the one from Yle:

    https://www.radiobremen.de/bremenzwei/rubriken/latein/latein-startseite100.html

  6. Avinor said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 7:48 am

    Regarding the name Yle:

    Broadcasting organizations in Europe of the traditional kind tend to have three-letter abbreviations, just like in the US: ARD, ZDF, BBC, ITV, TVE, RTP, TVP, SVT, NRK, NPO, NOS… (There are some exceptions with two or four letters.) Mostly, those are acronyms, but in the case of YLE, it was just "Yleisradio" cropped off.

    Much later, due to modern marketing, YLE decided to become Yle, treating it as a regular word/name rather than an abbreviation.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 8:15 am

    "In the United States, Latin is occasionally taught in high schools and middle schools, usually as an elective or option. There is, however, a growing classical education movement consisting of private schools and home schools that are teaching Latin at the elementary, or grammar school level. Latin is often taught and is sometimes a mandatory requirement at Catholic secondary schools. More than 149,000 Latin students took the 2007 National Latin Exam. In 2006, 3,333 students took the AP Latin Literature exam. There is a "National Latin Exam" in this country."

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instruction_in_Latin#United_States

  8. AK said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 8:57 am

    @Alexander Tievsky Are you a TJ alum? My high school (in Loudoun) also offered Latin, and it was an ordinary public school, not a magnet school or anything special.

    After the description of Dr. Mair's doctoral defense outfit, how can you not include a picture?

  9. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 9:10 am

    What is the best proficiency exam for Latin?

  10. John Lawler said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 9:16 am

    According to the original article, "In addition to Finnish and Swedish, Yle produces news in English, Russian, Sami, Roma, simplified Finnish, Karelian and sign language."

  11. Y said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 11:56 am

    The Finnish one precisely distinguishes vowel length. The Radio Bremen one (linked above by Avinor) not so.

  12. RP said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 1:33 pm

    Although classical in most of its pronunciation, Yle always seems to pronounce "ae" as /e/ – whereas canonically in classical Latin it is a diphthong /ae/ (from pre-classical /ai/). That said, the simplification to /e/ was apparently quite widespread in rural speech even in the classical period, but was considered less correct in educated urban circles.

  13. Robert Goldman said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 2:00 pm

    The Government of India's radio station (All India Radio/AIR) presents a daily news summary in Sanskrit while its TV station Doordarshan (DD) also one entitled Vārttā (news, happenings)

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 2:08 pm

    Table 3 in this fairly recent report says that 1,513 high schools in the U.S. offer Latin, which is about half the number that offer French, which number in turn is less than half the number that offer Spanish. https://www.americancouncils.org/sites/default/files/FLE-report-June17.pdf. I *think* that the survey data is limited to public schools although that's not as clear at a quick read as one might like. The table also gives a breakdown by state so you can see regional variation.

    A bit over 15 years ago, FWIW, I spent a lot of time in my Manhattan condo trying to figure out where in the suburbs to move to. One key reason to move to the suburbs if you have young children is for "good" (whatever that means) public schools, and as it happens Westchester County is fragmented into approx 40 different school districts (with comparable fragmentation in other suburban counties as well), so you have lots of choices to assess the relative "goodness" of. So as a way of narrowing down possibilities I decided to focus primarily-if-not-exclusively on houses in school districts where the high school offered Latin. Even though I knew it was implausible to pre-commit my then-two-year-old to actually taking Latin and even though I knew that offering Latin at the moment was no guarantee it would continue (my high school when I was there had probably one of the two largest-enrollment Latin programs in our state, but the school district dropped it altogether less than a decade after I graduated), it seemed like a good proxy for overall attitude toward curriculum that was otherwise difficult to quantify.

    Anyway, even though most people I mentioned it to thought that was a very eccentric house-buying criterion, I stuck to it, and fifteen-plus years later that toddler is graduating from high school this month with five years of Latin under her belt.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 3:20 pm

    On closer inspection, it looks as if the numbers I gave above were for both public and private high schools, but they don't break those categories out separately. Furthermore, those numbers seem to be for the subset of US high schools for which they were able to obtain data, so the actual numbers are probably higher — it's plausible to think that the incidence of offering Latin (or any foreign language) is probably lower at schools for which they couldn't get data than for schools for which they could get data, but it's implausible that the incidence of Latin instruction out of that missing/unsurveyed group of several thousand high schools is zero.

  16. TonyK said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 3:57 pm

    Interestingly, the official language of the Kingdom of Hungary was Latin until 1844. Presumably, for speakers of Finno-Ugric languages, Latin is a doddle, having only six cases.

  17. Gabriel Faure said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

    > That it was axed now is simply due to the fact that the Finnish broadcasting company is a political organ, and Finland has currently a leftist-feminist-capitalist government which cares little of Latin.

    I don't see why it would be relevant that the government is "feminist" in this context.

  18. Monscampus said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 5:18 pm

    @Gabriel Faure

    Seconded. Why should the government, leftist-feminist-capitalist or otherwise, oppose Latin? "Femina" is Latin after all. I find this quite offensive, with all due respect.

  19. RP said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 5:24 pm

    @Gabriel Faure,
    Neither do I. Also, Finland's new centre-left government took office less than a month ago. Even if the state broadcaster is as politicised as Victor Mair's correspondent believes, I think it would be rather surprising if it had had such a rapid impact. I think the explanations about the producers retiring and being hard to replace seem more plausible – together with the fact that it was originally the intention to end the broadcasts two years ago.

  20. John Swindle said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 5:54 pm

    The report that J.W. Brewer provided is helpful on Latin learning. It's surprising that it counts American Sign Language, Spanish, and an array of Native American languages as foreign in the US. Figures for Hawaii don't include Hawaiian, either because not all schools reported or because someone did notice that it wasn't foreign.

  21. David Marjanović said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 5:55 pm

    If you want to learn Latin in school for 6 years, your best bet is Austria, where the Latin teachers have a strong lobby – it's not going away. (Greek has become very rare, though, despite the exact same argument of "but that would be the End of the Occident™" in its favor.)

    How it's pronounced depends on the teacher. Both of mine pronounced it basically as German: c as [ts] when followed by e, i, ae, oe, eu as [ɔɪ̯], oe as [øː], ae as various attempts at [æː] that often just came out as [ɛ], and vowel length was barely mentioned (nom./voc. -a vs. abl. , os, ossis vs. ōs, ōris), meaning we got no idea which syllables counted as heavy and which as light in poetry. I happened to figure this out years later from reading about comparative Indo-European!

    Radio Bremen in Germany continues with its news broadcast in Latin, incidentally having the same title as the one from Yle:

    The pronunciation is an interesting combination of reconstructed Classical (e.g. -ae as a diphthong, no assibilation in -tion-) and a northern German accent (e.g. aspiration, two glottal stops in eorum, back a, predictable vowel length or rather quality).

    Why should the government, leftist-feminist-capitalist or otherwise, oppose Latin?

    It might view Latin as a waste of money valued only by those with conservative values. Not being conservative is all that "leftists" and "capitalists"* have in common, of course.

    * Libertarian-lite in American terms.

    "Femina" is Latin after all.

    Twice over: fēmina meaning "woman", and the unrelated femina, the plural of femur, meaning "thighs" – highly irregular, but makes total sense if you know, uh, Hittite.

  22. Monscampus said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

    @David Marjanović
    Whose best bet did you have in mind? It certainly wouldn't have been mine all those many years ago and probably nobody's outside Austria. Latin was my first foreign language (9 years), Greek the second (6 years). No need to bet. No, I don't know Hittite, but my Latin vocabulary is good enough.

  23. bgermain said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 1:21 am

    Greencastle in Putnam County, Indiana has only one high school and they do teach Latin.
    Population 11,600.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 2:45 am

    Latin was my first foreign language (9 years)

    That's impressive. May I enquire how many years ago that was, though?

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 3:51 am

    Not entirely convinced that having Latin as a first foreign language would be that unusual, at least for those of us educated in British grammar schools in the late 50s/early 60s (and even more so for those educated prior to that). Had it not been for an entirely fortuitous introduction [1] to French at primary school (very atypical, I think), Latin would have been my first foreign language.
    ——–
    [1]

    Now we've begun to learn some French, and this is what we say :
    For "thank you" we say "merci bien", "if you please" is "s'il vous plaît".
    "Good morning" is "bonjour", you know; "today" is "aujourd'hui";
    "demain", "tomorrow", "non" is "no", and "yes" is always "oui".
    And so we call our dog "le chien" and our pony "le petit cheval";
    and just for fun we call Nurse "la bonne", and for "Miss" say "Mad'moiselle"

  26. RP said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 6:32 am

    I'm sure you're right, @Philip Taylor, but David Marjanović was clearly referring to contemporary Austria, whereas you are referring to the Britain of decades ago.

    Btw, in the rhyme "yes is always oui" is wrong. "Yes" should sometimes be translated to French as "si".

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 10:12 am

    RP (oui v. si) — I know that now, and I was taught it when I was about 14, but I learned the rhyme at the age of (roughly) ten. 'And "yes" is often "oui"' would have been more accurate, and would have left the scansion intact, but would undoubtedly have been confusing to our little ten-year-old brains …

  28. Steve Muhlberger said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 12:59 pm

    Speaking of Latin in Ohio — my high school discontinued Latin in 1965, more or less. I don't know any more about the history of Latin education there.

  29. George said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 5:41 pm

    For what it's worth, an acquaintance teaches classics at a university in my area. I remember her saying a few years ago that their majors have no difficulty in finding jobs: Latin teachers are in demand. (A few years ago: perhaps as many as five, but certainly fewer than ten.)

  30. Victor Mair said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 8:08 pm

    From Anu Niemi, who has a PhD in Chinese poetry from the University of Helsinki:

    As for the Latin news, the presenter is a familiar face from the University Cafe where I often work. I did not know before this that they are cancelling the show. It's a shame! Latin used to be a required language before attending other language classes, but these days it is quite uncommon to be studying it. As I understand, it is mostly studied now as part of theological studies, the so called "church Latin".

    As for the word "yleis", it is derived from the word "yleinen": general. Yleisradio is a state-owned radio station.

  31. Athanassios Protopapas said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 3:51 am

    I am surprised that no one has yet pointed out that Finland is not part of Scandinavia.
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scandinavia

  32. RP said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 6:41 am

    I personally prefer a narrower definition, but it is clearly defensible to include Finland – see definition 1.1 at https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/scandinavia

    The Wikipedia article to which Athanassios Protopapas links acknowledges that the "wider" definition exists in English, and further down, the statement saying that the term "Nordic countries" is more usual for the wider definition is hedged with a tag 'dubious, discuss'.

  33. Kate Gladstone said,

    July 6, 2019 @ 9:09 pm

    John Lawler, what is "simplified Finnish"?

  34. ktschwarz said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

    From what I can gather from Yle's website and Wikipedia, selkosuomi ("plain/simple/easy Finnish") uses common vocabulary and simple sentences and is meant for learners, immigrants, and people with disabilities in reading or understanding language. It's comparable to Plain English or Basic English. Yle's "simple Finnish" broadcast is also spoken slowly.

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