Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Latin Pronunciation

A.P. Herbert, Uncommon Law (1935), Rex v. Venables and Others (a fictitious case), after Mr. Wick has used the terms neesee of kairtiorahree (nisi of certiorari), ooltrah weerayze (ultra vires), day yooray (de jure), pahree pahsoo (pari passu), preemah fakiay (prima facie), yoos waynahndee et piscahndee (jus venandi et piscandi), soob poynah (sub poena), and noan possoomooss (non possumus) in court:
Mr. Wick: My Lord, I pronounce the Latin tongue as I was taught at school.

The Lord Chief Justice: Exactly. You are not to be blamed, Mr. Wick. But I am bound to make it clear to you, to the rest of your gallant generation and to the generations that come after, that His Majesty's judges will not permit the speaking of the Latin tongue after that fashion in the King's Courts. I cannot hear you, Mr. Wick, for the very good reason that I cannot understand you. We are using different languages. It might be possible to establish communication between us by the use of an interpreter. I see no necessity for that expensive and protracted process, though I am tempted to compel the attendance of one of your pastors and masters to discharge the office of interpreter and witness the unhappy plight to which they have brought you. It is not for me at my time of life to learn a new language; it is not for the King's judges to remodel their diction according to the whims of pedagogues or the habits of the Junior Bar. The bitter conclusion is, Mr. Wick, that you must go away and learn to pronounce the Latin tongue correctly, according to the immemorial practice of your profession.

I hope that these observations will be communicated by you to the particular pedagogues responsible for your predicament and by the newspapers to the general world of education. It may have been hoped in the schools that by catching and corrupting a few generations of the young it would be possible to force this lisping, hybrid, artificial baby-talk upon the learned professions. That hope must have been moribund for many years, and it gives me pleasure now to sign its certificate of death.

In the legal profession, above all others, the Latin tongue is a living force, a priceless aid to precision of thought, to verbal economy and practical efficiency. Any knowing business man who mocks the study of the 'dead' languages has only to sit in our Courts for an hour or two to learn how far from dead the Latin language is; and if he still regards its use as the elegant foible of a number of old fogies I hope that he will try to translate into a few brief businesslike words such common phrases as a priori, de jure, ultra vires, ex parte, status quo and many others. We have taken these words from Rome, as we have taken much of her law, and made them English. I do not believe that the wisest scholars can surely say how Julius Caesar pronounced his name, and I care nothing if they can. For if I had abundant proof that the general answered to Yooliooss Kayzar I should not say that an act of the Chimney Magna justices was ooltrah weerayze. It is safe to prophesy that these hateful sounds will never proceed from the lips of an English judge, however many innocent boys are instructed to make them at school.

The same may be said of all the professions in which the 'dead' languages are not merely the toys of pedagogoes but the constant tools of practical men. I suffer from lumbago; I grow geraniums; I go to the cinema. And when my doctor diagnoses loombahgo, my gardiner cultivates gerahniooms, or my cook enjoys herself at the kyneemah I shall begin to think that the pedagogues are making headway.

As for the political world, the numerous Latin words in current political usage are sufficiently mystifying to the man-in-the-tavern without our attempting to make him pronounce them as some good don believes they may have been pronounced by Cicero or Horace. Even the mocking business man is not ashamed to draw his dividends at so much per centum; but not all the pedants of Arabia will induce him to draw them pair kentoom.

It follows, I think, that a system of teaching Latin which runs contrary to the practical use of Latin wherever Latin is practically employed is wrong and ought to be abandoned. This has been said before; but it is time for it to be said by one of His Majesty's judges. For our profession more than any other employs the naked Latin word as it was written by the Romans; and we alone are in a position to enforce our will upon this matter by guiding the speech of those who practise before us.

Mr. Wick, I am sorry for you. I look forward to seeing you before me again, cured of the horrible habits your professors taught you, and able to take that place in the ranks of your profession which your talents evidently deserve. Meanwhile, through your unhappy person, I issue, in the name of His Majesty's judges, this edict to the educationists ('What', as Mr. Haddock has so ably said, 'a word!'): The New Pronunciation is dead and must be buried.

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