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Et tu, Disney? Why Latin still matters

disney princess

Photo credit: Welcome to Disneyland by Chris Alcoran (via Flickr)

Although considered by many as a ‘dead’ language, Latin remains an influential and relevant cultural phenomenon to this day. Dr Ingrid De Smet, from Warwick’s Department of French Studies demonstrates the classical language’s continued vitality and employment, with some help from Finnish radio, sixteenth-century falconry and Sebastian from Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

“Latin is very much alive and Latinists remain in demand. A thorough understanding of the language is in fact needed to access the patrimony of the Renaissance and Early Modern period.”

When my teenage daughter recently sent me a link to a YouTube video featuring a Latin version of the song Under The Sea from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, it was at once very amusing and very profound to hear the title lyrics rendered as ‘Sub Pelago’. There does indeed exist a colourful world of post-classical, post-medieval Latin, which I have been exploring in my research for nigh on twenty-five years. For most people, however, this rich and mysterious realm no doubt surfaces only at rare moments.

The melodious, Latinate fishlet of the cartoon undoubtedly pertains to the – rather bemusing – pastime of latter-day Latin enthusiasts, who produce translations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (Alicia in Terra Mirabili), A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (Winnie ille Pu), J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (Harrius Potter) or delight in composing Latin haikus.

Latin still marks solemn occasions, as the unprecedented retirement speech of Pope Benedict XVI well testifies. Finnish national radio, which has broadcast Nuntii Latini since 1989, dedicates four-minute weekly bulletins to world news in Latin. The discovery of a new species of plant or animal (mostly insects these days) still
requires a Latin taxonomical identity.

Latin is very much alive and Latinists remain in demand. A thorough understanding of the language is in fact needed to access the patrimony of the Renaissance and Early Modern period. Latin (Neo-Latin) was the language of choice for some of Europe’s most iconic texts: think of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, Thomas More’s Utopia, Pope Leo X's condemnation of Luther in the papal bull ‘Exsurge domine’ (1520), Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543), one of the most significant works on human anatomy, or William Harvey’s work on the discovery of blood circulation, the De motu cordis et sanguinis (1628).

While Shakespeare, allegedly, had “small Latine and less Greeke”, Warwickshire did produce some remarkable Neo-Latin authors of its own: the naturalist Francis Willughby (1635-1675), whose works on ornithology, ichthyology and entomology were published posthumously, was born at Middleton Hall. The English poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), from Warwick, penned over 300 Latin poems and tracts, a good amount of them published in Pisa where their scathing remarks about Italian officials caused a run-in with the local censors.

The relationship of Latin with English or any other modern language is not always an easy one. Take the case of Jacques Auguste de Thou (1553-1617), the late sixteenth-century French magistrate whose monumental Latin History of His Own Time is a key document for our understanding of the tumultuous French Wars of Religion. But it does take some practice to recognise ‘Lupanar’ as the Louvre, ‘pontifex maximus’ as the Pope, or ‘Interamnas’ as the Baron d’Entragues! De Thou also left a learned Latin poem on the art of falconry, in the vein of Vergil’s Georgics. In three ‘books’, de Thou describes the various birds of prey that are suitable for the hunt, the raptor’s manning (training) and daily care, and last but not least the medical treatment of various ailments and lesions. Falconry or hawking was a very technical sport, which had given rise to the development of a rich vernacular jargon, in French but also in Italian (or in English, for that matter). So, it comes as no surprise that de Thou, over and above the metrical restraints of Latin poetry, sometimes struggles to find the right words. Brought up in the humanist tradition, he is not keen on Mediaeval Latin terminology, whilst the noble pastime of falconry (hunting with birds) – as opposed to lowly fowling (hunting for birds with nets and other traps) – was an art, which he believed unknown to the ancients.

He must therefore resort to giving new meanings to Classical terms, calling the falconer’s lure (French ‘leurre’) a ’plumatile lorum’ (a leather strap with feathers) or the varvels (French ‘vervelles’), flat metal rings attached to the falcon’s jesses and often engraved with her master’s name or coat of arms, ‘indices’ (signs). However, it requires some digging in contemporary French falconry treatises to identify de Thou’s ‘calamus’ as a ‘tiring’ (French ‘tiroir’), a tough piece of meat or bone such as a chicken wing or rabbit foreleg that will keep a bird of prey occupied but also conditions its beak and exercises its neck and back muscles. Editing and translating a text like this allows us to unlock the history of hawking, a sport still widely practised from the steppes of Mongolia to the Arabian peninsula, and which UNESCO recently declared part of the world’s ‘Immaterial Cultural Heritage’.

One need not wonder what de Thou would have thought of Disney’s ‘Sub Pelago’; in Latin or not, he would have dismissed the ‘subaqueous cavorting’ as frivolous. But he might have liked Harry Schnur’s gentle satire on the building of the Berlin Wall (Vallum berolinense, 1962) or have become a regular reader of the Latin online newspaper Ephemeris. What would have counted for him is that Latin, which has formed a cultural continuum in Europe for 2,500 years, transcends both time and borders.

Dr Ingrid de Smet is a Reader in the Department of French Studies. She specialises in the intellectual culture of sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century France and the Low Countries (French; Neo-Latin; Republic of Letters). Her research activities have been supported, among others, by the British Academy, the AHRC, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the MHRA. In October 2011 she started a three-year Leverhulme major research fellowship.

A version of this article first appeared on the Warwick Knowledge Centre. Please visit for other fascinating articles.