The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some people still speak Latin. What if U.S. presidents did?

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You only have to glance at Washington to see how steeped the American republic is in the classics. The Latin language, so familiar to the Founders, may have faded from our collective consciousness, but the great temples of the Capitol and Supreme Court and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials echo the classical tradition.

And spoken Latin is even making a bit of a comeback these days, with some educators looking to the ancient language as a means of tackling the country’s contemporary literacy problems.

Two pioneers in the revival of spoken Latin, University of Kentucky Profs. Milena Minkova and Terence Tunberg,  run classes and summer camps (or conventicula)  in spoken Latin and actually converse in Latin. It’s their common tongue.

Minkova  says she speaks Latin with “many other colleagues from Europe and America.” Sure, she and Tunberg will fall back into English in faculty meetings (to do otherwise would be  impolite and impolitic), but Latin has become “their normal language of communication.” Rome, where Minkova used to live,  may be the world capital, or caput mundi, she says, but she and Tunberg have created a new Rome, “novam Romam,” in Lexington among speakers who are comfortable using “the language that shaped the Western World.” Some of those disciples have in turn sent their own students back to Lexington to study at the Institute for Latin Studies.

“We are like grandparents,” says Minkova, perpetuating a language that many gave up for dead.

Tunberg doesn’t go so far as to suggest, as some have done, that the language of the European Union, for example, should be Latin. (“That’s absurd!”)  His approach is more practical —  that “we should use the language we study.”

And it’s easy to adapt the language to our changing world. Computer, after all, comes from the Latin verb computare (although there is a healthy disputatio about whether the Latin noun should be computatrum or computatorium). As for a laptop? Tunberg’s answer is simply to add an adjective and call it a carryable computer —  computatorium gestabile.  In other examples, the words for the new inventions are jargon that work in almost any language: An  iPad is an iPad is an iPad.

Their fluency made us wonder what it would be like if the grand tradition of Ciceronian rhetoric had survived in this country, if the successors of George Washington, the American Cincinnatus,  had delivered their famous lines in Latin.

See if you can identify the following famous presidential quotes — reproduced in Latin by Minkova and Tunberg. The easiest one comes first!

1) Sint tibi verba mitissima – at baculum geras maximum

2) Rogo, Gorbachev, murum istum demoliaris

3) Nil mutabitur, si alios homines, si tempora alia exspectaverimus. Quos homines iam exspectavimus? Nosmet ipsos. Ubi sunt res novae, quas desideravimus? In nobismet ipsis.

4) Aliquando omnes homines, semper quosdam homines decipere possumus. Nemo autem omnes homines semper decipere potest.

5) Non est rogandum quid tuā causā facere possit civitas, sed quid civitatis causā facere possis.

6) Qui libertate frui cupiverit, vigilandum sibi in perpetuum fore sciat!

And because we are talking about language here:

7) Omnia ex eo pendent – quid sit illud ‘esse’!

And finally:
8) In votis est ut cives nostri clementiores mitioresque fiant.


1) Speak softly and carry a big stick. — Theodore Roosevelt

2) Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.  — Ronald Reagan

3) Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.  — Barack Obama

4) You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.  — Abraham Lincoln

5) Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. — John F. Kennedy

6) The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. — Thomas Jefferson

7) It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. — Bill Clinton

8) I want a kinder, gentler nation. — George H.W. Bush