Whatever you might think of The Passion of The Christ, at least Mel Gibson tried with the Latin. There aren’t many films with a credit for ‘Theological Consulting and Aramaic/Latin Translation’, and Dr William J. Fulco, the Jesuit priest brought in to sort out the locatives and the subjunctives, gets an alpha beta, if not quite an alpha, for his homework.
The Latin is pretty straightforward, though. ‘Sanctus est,’ is Mrs Pilate’s view of Jesus. ‘Facta non verba,’ is the Roman soldier’s order to Christ, when he starts talking too much. ‘Mortuus est,’ says Longinus, the soldier who sticks a spear in Jesus’s side to check whether he’s alive. There’s only one slip — noticed by the editor of this magazine. If you are addressing a man from Judaea, you should use the vocative ‘Judaee’, not ‘Judaeus’; vide Julian the Apostate’s Vicisti, Galilaee.
Still, even Father Fulco’s simple Latin will be beyond most schoolboys now. Latin in Britain is not quite yet a dead language. But it is dying.
For all the supposed life that Harry Potter breathed back into the language, a negligible number of children are now actually learning it in any rigorous way. Yes, they might be able to translate the Hogwart’s motto — ‘Draco dormiens numquam titillandus’ (‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’). But they won’t be able to write a Latin poem in praise of Maggie Smith’s acting skills or J.K. Rowling’s philanthropy, or recite screeds of Virgil as any halfwit grammar school boy or public school boy could half a century ago.
The number of grammar schools has slumped in that time; and the number of children studying Latin in public schools and the remaining grammar schools has collapsed. In 1960, 60,000 children did Latin O level. Now 10,000 do the much more basic replacement, GCSE. When it comes to A levels, it’s time to drag in the life-support machine: only 5,000 children a year take a classical A level of any sort, less than 0.8 per cent of all A levels taken. [more]