Latter day Latin

Christopher asked:

Why do philosophers use Latin? I can buy an English translation of a book, but there’s still Latin words in it. I am able to understand most of the Latin words, but it’s just sort of a pet peeve. Does the Latin word carry some additional connotation that the English translation doesn’t? Actually, it’s not only Latin that I’ve come across in an English translated book. I always see the French word for resentment in Nietzsche’s books as well. Is this just simply for aesthetic purposes? Just a preference of the author?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

All English literature is full of loan words from other languages. Somewhere in excess of 50% of all English words are Latin derivatives, generally through French: surely you must know that? Moreover, if you’ve ever come in contact with another language, then you would also understand that the connotations of even the same words in English and other languages rarely coincide exactly. So the Latin in philosophy fills the bill of this disparity, by giving you a Latin-derived or actual Latin word to ensure that the connotations are covered as best as possible.

It makes no difference with Nietzsche (despite the occasional irritation) that French words occur in translations, since they frequently cover his meanings more exactly than Anglo-Saxon equivalents. I hope this answers your question.


Answer by Craig Skinner

No, it doesnt usually carry additional connotation. But speaking for myself as one of the last generation to have routinely sat through Latin lessons at the local school, I intend to keep using Latin words ad nauseum, maybe ad infinitum, just to annoy those fortunate enough to have enjoyed computer studies lessons instead.

So, I will continue to update my curriculum vitae, examine viva voce, make a priori, a posteriori and reductio ad absurdum arguments and ad hominem objections, disagree with the tabula rasa view of the mind, and fertilize in vivo or in vitro as the mood takes me. Ceteris paribus of course.

Pull yourself together and think how much worse it was in days gone by when Latin was the language of Western scholarship.

Up to the 16th Century the Bible was only available in Latin (or Greek) and you could lose your life making an English translation for the masses to understand.

It was infra dig (if you’ll pardon the Greek) to write in the vernacular lest common people grasped it and got ideas above their station. Wanted to read Bacon’s new ideas? Sorry, in Latin (Novum Organum). Newton then? Same (Philosophiae Naturalis, Principia Mathematica). Even Descartes’ Meditations first appeared in Latin.

By the late 17th and 18th Century it was better. Only chunks of Latin verse in the texts but no translation (none being thought needed for the classically-educated reader).

By the 19th Century, any extended burst of Latin was translated in a footnote.

In the 20th Century, only the phrases which peeve you (and no doubt others).

By later this century it will all be over save for words which have become part of English.

Castigat ridendo mores.

I am

pro bono

Yours et cetera


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