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Latin lost in translation

Tue., Nov. 4, 2008

British town’s action spawns classic row

LONDON – It’s a bona fide scandal.

Britain’s Latin and Greek aficionados are outraged at a decision by some local councils to veto the use of Latin words and phrases – including bona fide, ad lib, et cetera and e.g. – in official documents.

The councils say Latin is no longer widely understood. But classicists say axing Latin phrases is an attack on the foundations of English.

“The English language is a hybrid animal that has adopted any number of words and phrases from other languages which have become a part of English,” said Peter Jones, a retired professor of classics at the University of Newcastle and founder of Friends of Classics. “To deny the hybrid nature of the English language is almost like ethnic cleansing of English.”

The council in Bournemouth, a town of 170,000 on England’s south coast, has a “plain language” policy that lists 19 Latin words and phrases to be avoided, and suggests replacements.

Salisbury City Council in southern England also advises staff to avoid ad hoc and et cetera, as well as French phrases like “in lieu” and “fait accompli.”

British local authorities have been under pressure from their umbrella body, the Local Government Association, and others to cut their use of jargon and confusing language.

The Plain English Campaign, which has been fighting official jargon for three decades, said a majority of councils had adopted some form of plain-speaking guidelines, although few appear to have gone as far as Bournemouth in eliminating Latin.

The campaign said it supported the council’s policy.

“We are talking about public documents where people need to read, understand and take action that may affect their lives,” spokeswoman Marie Clair said Monday. “This is information that everybody needs to know about, regardless of their level of education.”

Latin and ancient Greek were once considered the cornerstones of a first-class education. But the languages are no longer widely taught in Britain. Friends of Classics says Latin is taught in only 15 percent of state schools – a modest increase from a few years ago.

But Latin’s backers say thousands of common English words have Latin roots, and argue the replacement phrases can be even more difficult to understand. To some ears “existing condition” is less harmonious than “status quo,” and “the other way round” less snappy than “vice versa.”


 

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