For the first time, a South American, Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina will be the Pope, taking the name Francis. Electing a new pope involves of course a host of traditional rituals and practices, most of which have remained the same for centuries. Modernizations such as use of cell phones or social media are taboo. From a cultural perspective, the process is particularly interesting in its linguistic and non-verbal dimensions. As was the case when Pope Benedict announced his surprise resignation, Latin is the language used to announce the election of the pope (habemus Papam – we have a pope), with the name of the new pope Latinized, including having his first name put into the accusative case. Speakers of language which don’t use a lot of inflections (like English) often have a hard time with proper names being declined. Dealing with names in context is always a stumbling block for learners of Russian, for example.
The non-verbal communication surrounding the election of the pope is extensive. As soon as the cardinals emerge from the conclave, one can identify visually the new pope by the fact that he is the only one dressed in white. There was a lot of debate after Pope Benedict’s resignation about what color his vestments would be, white, red or black. Even more interest was generated by his shoes – he will be giving up the red shoes typically worn by popes (symbolizing the blood of the Christian martyrs). The other interesting non-verbal message involved in the process is the use of smoke signals, not the array of signals used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, but simply black smoke from the Vatican chimney for a ballot round with no winner or white smoke indicating Papam habemus.
When Pope Benedict announced this week that he was stepping down, he did so in Latin. The small group of reporters listening to the Pope on a live feed at the Vatican scrambled to understand what they quickly saw was a significant announcement. Italian reporter, Giovanna Chirri confirmed for her colleagues (and the world through a tweet) that in fact the Pope had announced he was resigning. My Latin teacher in high school would have jumped at the opportunity to point out – “You see how useful learning Latin can be! You could be the first to announce to the world something that hasn’t happened in 600 years!” The reporters’ scramble reminded me of the press conference where Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Giddy suddenly quoted Nietzsche in German, “Was mich nicht tötet, macht mich stärker” (What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger). Reporters back then were also struggling to understand.
The Pope’s announcement has led to a flurry of interest and news stories about Latin, not often in the news these days. Latin of course is still studied in schools and universities. There is a radio station in Finland that has been broadcasting a program in Latin for a number of years. But learning Latin is quite different in nature from learning Spanish or any other living language, and not just because it is no longer spoken, As Annalisa Quinn puts it, “Latin serves as a cultural signifier — if you are studying classics, you announce either your wealth or your devotion to the selfless pursuit of knowledge. In movies and books, knowledge of Latin or Greek is a little bit like glasses and knitwear — a kind of shorthand for intelligence.” Aside from the cultural messaging, learning Latin can actually be useful, even if you’re not a Vatican reporter. It is an essential enabler of classical studies, but also is an excellent way to learn about the nature of language and linguistics, and to learn about the etymology of words in English and many other languages (as my Latin teacher hammered home at every opportunity). According to the Telegraph, Pope Benedict is one of the last truly fluent Latin speakers – apparently not all the cardinals present at the announcement actually understood the momentous news.