No more Latin

A number of local councils in the UK have decided to ban their staff from using phrases of Latin origin, such as vice versa, bona fide, ad lib, QED and pro rata, in speech or writing, according to this report.

Some of the councils believe that Latin is elitist and discriminatory because not everybody understands it, especially if English is not their first language.

Suggested alternatives include ‘for this special purpose’ for ad hoc and ‘existing condition’ or ‘state of things’ for status quo.

Classicists have not welcomed this move and one described it as “absolutely bonkers” and the “linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing”, but the Plain English Campaign approve and believe that officials only use Latin to make themselves feel important.

This entry was posted in Language, Latin.

36 Responses to No more Latin

  1. JRice says:

    Watching language change is hard. I’m kind of torn on this issue, since, on one hand, I was brought up as a “purist”, in the sense of “We speak the Queen’s English in this house!” And I believe that learning words of foreign origin is a positive thing. …And, as much as I like other languages, I even like to pronounce them as close to their foreign form as I can muster.

    At the same time, I also appreciate that those languages formed through the same processes: influence and influx from the languages they interacted with. Change is natural. Change is good. Obama ’08. [har har] Language needs change.

    But then my wife says something like “me and my sister went to the store”, and I get livid all over again. ; )

  2. kamper says:

    I don’t know if the vocab is slightly different over there (I’m in Canada), but I’d consider words/phrases like “vice versa” and “via” to be part of my normal English vocabulary. Off the top of my head, I don’t have succinct, non-latin replacements for them.

    If they are going to do this, they should make up a list of allegedly difficult English words that should also not be used. Since banning anything more difficult than “via” would clearly be ridiculous, a reasonable standard might be to allow anything that is in a standard English dictionary. If someone with imperfect English is going to look up words anyway, they’ll face no extra challenge looking up Latin words that are also in the dictionary.

  3. Ryan says:

    Back in the late 1960’s the USA started what is now referred to as “dumbing down.” We made high school diplomas and university degrees easier to obtain by lowering the standards required for obtaining them. The result was the devaluing of these academic degrees, an “educated” population with not much reading comprehension or math skills and the necessity to spend even more time and money getting a postgraduate degree to stand out from the crowd.

    Lowering standards, especially ones that most people have been meeting for many decades, almost always results in performance of a lower quality. I’m not saying that the British will become less intelligent because of this new ban but I do think that they are running the risk of becoming so, especially if they continue down this path.

  4. Cakra says:

    “..especially if English is not their first language”?

    As non-native speaker of English, I don’t think people find Latin phrase more difficult than English one. I think most learners don’t know if those phraese are Latin or not. We just learn phrases and remember the meanings without wanting to know where they were derived from. We don’t understand them because we rarely use them in normal speech. That’s the reason.

  5. Severn says:

    It’s rather ironic that they want to “simplify” these phrases with English when the English equivalents are rather longer. Look at what they’d be replacing: ‘for this special purpose’ (6 syllables) for ‘ad hoc’ (2 syllables); ‘existing condition’ (6 syllables) for ‘status quo’ (3 syllables); or even ‘Not in law but in practice’ (7 syllables) for ‘de facto’ (3 syllables)!

  6. Vacker says:

    It also struck me, like it did Kamper, that some of these phrases are used less in the UK than in North America. Maybe the Plain English Campaign isn’t so much an advocate for plain, understandable English as it is for pure, unadultered-by-foreign-words English. Wouldn’t it make more sense to demand the use of the most common word or phrase, rather than the most English? “Vice versa” is definitely used more—at least in the USA—than “conversely.”

  7. Lleij Samuel Schwartz says:

    Stultorum infinitus est numerus.

  8. Zachary says:

    This is pretty stupid. I understand the motive, but still… Even without being literate, words like ‘vice versa’ are so commonly used that they’re more English than they are Latin. Like kamper though, I’m also Canadian. But if someone decided to purify our language by getting rid of latinate words, I’d be more stupified by hearing these odd phrases and other English terms instead.

    We don’t live in medieval times anymore, so we shouldn’t have to be forced to conform to these modern ‘elitists’. I could understand a spelling reform, but a language reform? I fail to see how these changes would help the uneducated in any way.

  9. BG says:

    Cum Lleij Samuel Schwartz consentio. Latina lingua optima est, multo melior quam Anglica. Quo plus Latinae, eo melior.

  10. Lev says:

    Why don’t they ban “biology” and replace it by “science of life”?

    On the other hand, here in Israel a campaign against English words would be in order. But not before someone finds good translations. For example, ‘for this special purpose’ is long and cumbersome while ‘ad hoc’ is just two syllables.

  11. dmh says:

    If they’re doing this, they should eliminate ALL words of Latin origin just to be fair. Then let’s see ’em communicate! (of course, I think I saw a wikipedia in this “non-latin” English before)

  12. BG says:

    Yeah its called Anglish. Here is their website. This would be OK and interesting, but I think discriminating just against Latin phrases is horrbible, as anyone who can understand my above comment will know.

  13. TJ says:

    I think adding a latin twist into a speech is somehow a good thing. Latin was once a lingua franca and even more than that. Anyway things can be fixed in the middle, to not use more Latin terms, and yet stick to simple ones already used. To ban it completely actually makes the speech dull, whether it be in English or any other language.
    By the way, what do they suggest as an alternative for “kindergarten” ? “Garden of Infants” ??

  14. GeoffB says:

    While it’s possible to go overboard with the Latin phrases, a lot of them are pretty useful. I can’t imagine life without etc., eg. and i.e. And will our term papers have to have “same citations as above” in place of the concision of “ibid.”? I can see talking about “all that sort of thing” while “et hoc genus omne” is a bit highfalutin. But it’s another sort of pretension to act as though those poor, ordinary people couldn’t understand ad lib and vice versa.

    Truth is, a major part of English’s strength is its ability to adopt and adapt words and concepts. I find it especially charming when we make use of abbreviations or truncations of the Latin like “ad lib” or “et al.” because it looks to me like an early version of texting – a short hand for those in the know to get the point across quickly.

    I’d also note that whatever their intentions, people who push this sort of thing strike me as the intellectual cousins of the folks in the Académie française who want people to use their awkward Gallic creations when snappy English words suit the purpose and are already widely understood. We should let English run free!

  15. Alan H. says:

    I’ve found plenty of Latin phrases in German books and articles that are used the same way as they are in English, so the notion that only a native English speaker knows how to properly use et cetera is silly at best.

    The Anglish Moot wiki is interesting as kind of a language hobby. Some of the Anglish words presented in the dictionary are awkward (‘treestrand’ instead of cellulose, ‘wightyard’ for zoo).

  16. Simon says:

    TJ – alternatives to kindergarten include nursery school and nursery. They are more common than kindergarten in the UK.

  17. Leitbulb says:

    In the US, nursery school and kindergarten are very different.

  18. garance says:

    The argument does not make sense: Latin is the basis of many European languages and makes it easier for non-English natives to glide from one language to another. I have been blessing my knowledge of Latin roots many times when studying English, which is not my native language.
    And how many expressions are they talking about? Most of us know less than 20. Will ignoring them guarantee a high school diploma?
    But is not the first time or the only country for which the lowest common denominator becomes the rule.

  19. prase says:

    It’s absurd. Non-English European speakers understand words of Latin origin more naturally than pure English, and other non-English speakers are probably unable to distinguish the origin of the word.

  20. prase says:

    Lev: “biology” is less horrible then “science of life”, since biology is Greek and Science is, brr, Latin.
    TJ: Infants are also intolerable. I suggest childgarden.

  21. James P says:

    “Infants are also intolerable. I suggest childgarden”

    I think that Baron and Baroness Bomburst had it right when they employed the Child Catcher. but I digress from linguistic issues

  22. Phil says:

    All of this has inspired me to pepper my speech with Latin phrases.

  23. Phil says:

    Can we complain to these councils in the same way that tens of thousands of people complained to the BBC about Brand and Ross?

  24. Declan says:

    It is silly to use a Latin word when there is a perfectly good English word available (I’ve heard ergo used), but removing common phrases is as bad as a lot of that PC nonsense.

    Kindergarten is a very American term, playschool, or pre-school (less common) is what is used in Ireland.

  25. Malic diNata says:

    whoa… how about medical terms???
    nulla est medicina sans lingua latina…

  26. rek says:

    Question: How is ‘for this special purpose’ easier to learn than ‘ad hoc’? The words may be familiar, but you still have to learn what they mean in that context.

  27. Eddy1701 says:

    As much as I like Latin as a language, I do kind of feel English would be better off without so much Latin influence. It would have been nice if English had remained more like Dutch and German rather than absorbing so much Romance. I suppose I just don’t share the adoration for the Roman empire that Mediæval elites had.

  28. TJ says:

    Simon: really? never heard it that way!!! Always (almost I should say) translated into Kindergarten here!

  29. Peter J. Franke says:

    In Dutch, Latin phrases as “ad hoc”, “vice versa” and “via” (the latter you’ll even find at traffic signs in the Netherlands) “etc. (etera)”, are as familiar as they are in English.
    A lot of Sanskrit words and phrases are standard in Indian languages (dharma, karma, maya)….
    Arab words are used in many languages, not only those from Islamic countries: magazan [maXazan] (a place to store); marhaba (welcome) is also used in Turkish and many other south asian tongues;the Dutch word: “piekeren”, intense thinking, comes from fiqr but VIA Indonesia, where people were not used to pronounce the [f] and turned it into a [p]….
    etcetera, etcetera.
    It’s OK…. (global use) to me as long as it adds to understand each other.

  30. Michael says:

    It is ludicrous to do something like that.
    Many of you have been making very good arguments.
    When second-language learners learn a language, they don’t learn the origins of words (of course there are exceptions in those who’re interested), they learn the meanings and usages. It also needs to be said, that both ESL speakers and native speakers both do not learn these “phrases” as phrases, that is they don’t learn anything inside the phrase, but rather the phrase as a whole, as if it were one word. I myself have no background in Latin, and thus learn these “phrases” for face value, if you will. I don’t know what the individual words in “quid pro quo” mean (though I can make educated guesses), but it doesn’t matter.
    English is such a unique language and in some ways can be said to be a creole. We have words and phrases borrowed from languages all over the world. Look at phrases borrowed from French: “Je ne sais quoi” “Bon appétit!” etc. It could be considered elitism to use some phrases, but others, as many have already said, are absolutely normal.
    It’s not too unlike what North Korea did in its Koreanization policy, by creating cumbersome pure-Korean terms for things that can be easily said as concise Sino-Korean words, or more trendy English borrowings.

  31. paul says:

    How far will this go? Will all French words be lost next? This is a slippery slope which can potentially end at a much simpler, but less interesting and expressive language. But even the simpler part might be in question if you read the posts above. The great thing about the English language is that it has incorporated so much into it from other sources making it endlessly rich. It would be sad to loose some of this richness.

  32. Stuart, London says:

    I think some people have taken this news story to an extreme and think that such latin words and phrases are being totally expunged from the language – they are not.

    The news story is about some councils suggesting that they not be used, in order to maximise understanding. Considering that councils need to communicate to everyone within their area, using language that is understandable by as many people as possible makes perfect sense, and it has been shown that a good number of people struggle with certain latinisms in the language. The likes of ad hoc, pro rata and QED are NOT understood by all native English speakers.

    Some such as ab lib, vice versa and etcetera are very well known and I see no reason to stop people using them per se (oops, just used another one that not everyone knows), but a lot of them are little understood by the population at large.

    And this is nothing new either. At school I had come across the likes of i.e. and e.g., as well as others like ergo, ab lib, vice versa, and etc, but at university I had to learn what ibid, ad hoc, QED, pro rata, per se, and others all meant. This has always been the case – latinisms have on the whole always been used by the educated and not by general population at large.

    So once again, there is nothing wrong on the whole in councils trying to limit the usage of these words when you consider their readership. That does NOT mean that people want to get rid of words of French origin, or latin words used in the medical profession (such words in the medical profession are jargon pertinant to that profession and are necessary to be precise when talking among fellow professionals – when speaking to the general public however doctors tend to (or should) amend the words they use so thay they are understood). This is not a slippery slope whatsoever.

    Latinisms discussed here will continue to be used in the language, and will no doubt be encouraged by teachers and publishers alike, but just don’t expect to see them in little-read letters and leaflets from your council.

  33. renato figueiredo says:

    One of the greatest mistakes the educational Brazilian System made in early ’60 was to take off the classes of Latin from the schools teaching. My mother, who studied only until de high school (here called 2o grau) new much more about Portuguese language, than my generation, who didn’t studied Latin, and pass to study English, which is a Germanic Language. Today, we see people speaking and writing Portuguese worse every year.
    In the same way, I would suggest Let us abandon all contribution English language gave to Portuguese, in sports like football, and in technological terms.
    Let us abandon all contribution many other languages (Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Japanese, German, Russian, etc.). I also can’t forget the enormous contribution the African languages brought to Brazil and U.S.A.
    Maybe this council should let its xenophobia in the trash of the non-culture, and study more languages or frequent Omniglot page every week. Their member would learn a lot.

  34. Peter J. Franke says:

    A Dutch phrase: “Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum…” ?
    Do you guess what it means….

  35. Halabund says:

    It is in order to encourage officials to speak in clear and easy to understand terms, but I don’t see how banning expressions of Latin origin would help with this … As a non-native speaker of English, I have always considered expressions like vice versa an organic part of English.

    However, a push for clearly and concisely written official documents is a very good thing. I have never been to the UK, so I don’t know what the situation is there, but unfortunately Hungarian officials have a tendency to try to make their writing more “official-looking”, sometimes completely butchering the grammar … In official documents one can too often see simply incorrect and terribly mutilated language …

  36. Alan Coady says:

    Are members of the Plain English Campaign aware that “plain” comes from the Latin “planus” and “campaign” from the Old French “champagne?” Time for a rethink, methinks 🙂

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