Monday, January 02, 2006

Latin Radio and Yiddish

Alert reader November alerted me to the existence of Nuntii Latini, Radio Finland's Latin news reports, which can be heard online. I listened to it, and found it interesting. The pronunciation is the so-called "classical" pronunciation, devised by philologists in the 18th and 19th centuries, as opposed to the various traditional "church" pronunciations used for Catholic liturgy, although they pronounced v/consonantal u as v, whereas I was taught to pronounce it as "w." Heck, for all I know, so were they, except for them "w" sounds like "v." Wery interesting. More interesting, though, was the effect of their Finnish accents, which were readily apparent -- no big surprise. On the one hand, the heavy Finnish "l" was a bit jarring and seemed out of place (although I admit I have never heard Latin spoken by a native speaker), but on the other hand the Finnish distinction between short and long consonants suits Latin very well, which shares this distinction, and was clearly audible.

All this got me thinking about the phenomenon of Latinism and its cousin Sanskritism -- I'm using these terms to mean people who think the world needs news radio broadcasts in these languages, people who raise their children speaking them, people who form clubs and go to meetings and retreats where everyone speaks. In particular I thought about the relation of these movements to Yiddishism.

The fundamental difference is that Latin and Sanskrit have had no real native speakers for over a thousand years, and a good deal more than that in the case of Sanskrit. Yiddish, on the other hand, is thriving -- a short subway ride will take me to large communities with a vibrant culture, in which children grow up knowing no other language besides Yiddish. I'm referring, of course, to the Hasidic communities. So given that Yiddish is neither dead nor dying, it begins to seem odd that there are people whose behavior towards Yiddish is reminiscent of other people's behavior towards Sanskrit or Latin. Do I have anything against such people? Absolutely not -- I admire their dedication and idealism. In fact I'm on the board of an organization that encourages young people to speak Yiddish and to foster the growth of new Yiddish-speaking communities. I go to Yiddish-speaking events, and I may even raise my children in Yiddish. But I do think that such behavior contributes to the misconception that Yiddish is dead or dying, and I think some Yiddishists cross a line when they present themselves, even inadvertently, as "saving Yiddish."

Who is acting more strangely? People who make news reports and raise their children in dead languages, or people who treat a living language as if it were dying? I don't know. On the one hand, a Latin radio show in Finland is patently absurd, not that I am against absurdity as such. On the other, it was the same impulse that resurrected the long-dead Hebrew language, thus giving birth to Modern Hebrew, or Israeli, as some argue it should be called. Go know.

No comments: