The charming lady who gave our continent her name was of Jewish ethnicity and Phoenician (nowadays Lebanese, Syrian and Israeli) nationality, the god who kidnapped her was Greek, and they had their first sex in Crete. The roots of the mythical figure "Europa" are of Greek and not of Latin origin. And yet the "Latin connection" is highlighted on every possible occasion when it comes to legitimising the idea of a European identity, or even a European language.

If Europe Speaks Latin

We all know the problem. The English are horrified by the howlers their mother tongue sprouts in so-called European English; the French speak either French or French; the Spanish either don't speak or they speak too fast; the German have their terrible accent, and no one understands when native British-English speakers try to explain themselves in English. "Europeamus!" is the answer of some who think that speaking Latin is the way out.

Photo: Marcello eM(CC)
If Europe spoke Latin, conversations in our next Erasmus party might just become a tiny bit clumsier.

The advantages are evident. The language is nobody’s mother tongue - a fair chance for everyone - and it is jawbreaker-free; Londinium is pronounced Londinium and not Lunden, London, Londres, Londra, Londyn, or Λονδίνο (or Manchester, as the saying has it). The Latin language is complex but precise: grammar allowing constructive dodges like the ablativus absolutus (ablative absolute) which acts as a repository for any additional information relating to the main clause, or a hyperbaton hiding an adjective miles away from the subject of its reference, could be the perfect raw material for European laws drafted in Brussels.

Latin is not a dead language by nature - it was the exclusive language of European science until the 16th century, and is currently still the official language of the Catholic Church and the Vatican. The obvious disadvantage? The language is nobody’s mother-tongue and everyone has to learn it. Given that there are seven cases, five declensions and four conjugations, it may not always be as simple as acquiring a rudimentary "I-do-you-do-he/she/it-does" kind of European English. It would seem odd to imagine the next Erasmus party dialogue as: "Eho salve, ut vales?" – "Magnifice! Frigidam velis cervisiam?" ("Hi, how are you?"– "Great! Wanna have a cool beer?")

If Europe owes its identity to both Christianity and Latin, the result must be a cultural schizophrenia, a contradictio in adiectio.

How Latin is Europe?

First the Romans killed Christ. Then Christianity surpassed the Roman religion (that on its part had been taken over from the Greeks), dismissing it as paganism. If Europe owes its identity to both Christianity and Latin, the result must be a cultural schizophrenia, a contradictio in adiectio.

Photo: Holly Hayes;(CC BY-NC)
Can Christianity and Latin co-exist in defining the European identity historically?

A third element is needed to close the dialectic gap: the recollection and updating of discarded heritage. Starting from the Italy of the 14th century, the Renaissance movement rediscovered the ancient "classic" aesthetics of the past Roman culture and rang the bell for the end of the Middle Ages. Then, around 1800 the Enlightenment era challenged and broke the lasting supremacy of Christian dogma, often returning to philosophical and scientific paradigms which dated back to pagan antiquity. In Latin, of course: "Sapere aude!" was Immanuel Kant's battle cry for "mankind's way out of self-inflicted sheepishness." 

"Dare to make use of your reason!"

Pre-imperial democracy successfully superseded the divine right of kings and absolutist monarchies thanks to the Enlightenment. Science started to deny religion’s sovereignty of interpretation, which it had borne for centuries. If modern Europe is a child of the enlightenment era, Latin culture at least is its godfather (and Christianity at best its step-aunt).

But even in the Middle Ages, which people now remember as 'gloomy' and unenlightened, the Latin language remained the carrier of intellectual heritage and progress, though reserved for a small, mostly ecclesiastical elite. And the Roman Empire served as a paragon and legitimator for most subsequent empires on European territory. Its influence on modern language has travelled along. For instance, both the German term "Kaiser" and the Russian name "Tsar" derive from the Roman politician who in 45 B. C. crowned himself Roman emperor and thus ended the almost 500-year-old democratic tradition of the Roman Republic: Gaius Iulius Caesar.

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