August 13, 2020

Helsinki Journal: ‘Nuntii Latini,’ News Broadcast in Finland, Unites Fans of Latin

Nobody knows exactly how many listeners the Latin program reaches. “Tens of thousands is my wild guess,” said Sami Koivisto, a reporter in the station’s news department. But it seems clear that the Internet is injecting new life into a language often described as dead.

No, there are no traffic reports from the Appian Way, nor does the station assign a political reporter to the Forum. But, on Friday evenings before the main news broadcast, the Finnish Broadcasting Company presents five or six short news stories in Latin. In recent weeks, the subjects have included the financial crisis in Cyprus, an unusually brilliant aurora borealis and the election of Pope Francis.

“There are no scoops,” Mr. Blanchard, 37, said recently, over coffee. “But it is a great way to hear the news.” A request to the French national broadcaster to do something similar, he said, failed to produce a response.

Not even Vatican Radio, which broadcasts some prayers each day in Latin, reports the news in the ancient tongue.

Tuomo Pekkanen, a retired professor of Latin who helped start “Nuntii Latini,” or “Latin News,” as the program is known, said the language is very much alive for him and for many educated Finns of his generation deeply influenced by Edwin Linkomies, his Latin professor at Helsinki University and prime minister during the difficult years of World War II. For them, Latin was a part of Finnish identity as well as of a sound education.

“In order to be educated,” said Mr. Pekkanen, 78, who is proficient in not only Latin but also ancient Greek and Sanskrit, “it was once said that a real humanist must write poetry in Latin and Greek.”

Mr. Pekkanen helped start the news program almost on a lark, then saw it steadily gain popularity. “Picking the subjects, that is the most difficult part of it,” said Mr. Pekkanen, who in his spare time has translated all 22,795 verses of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, into rhymed Latin verse. “One principle is that we don’t want to count the bodies of how many were killed in this or that country,” he said. “That is dull.”

It may be no coincidence that the broadcast began in 1989, the year Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Finns turned toward Western Europe. For educated Finns, Latin had long been the country’s link to Western culture, and they were required to study the language in school.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” said Jukka Ammondt, a university lecturer in English and German who dabbles in Latin and regularly tunes in to the broadcasts, even though he confesses that he cannot understand everything.

Mr. Ammondt, 68, has certainly done his part to promote Latin — and Finland. After a difficult divorce two decades ago, he turned increasingly to the songs of Elvis Presley, an idol of his youth, for consolation. For the fun of it, he began singing them in Latin.

Now, in addition to teaching, he gives occasional concerts like one last summer when he swayed a crowd at the Finnish Culture Center in St. Petersburg, Russia, east of here, with his renditions of “Tenere me ama,” (“Love Me Tender”) and “Ursus Taddeus” (“Teddy Bear”).

While the broadcasts once went out over the airwaves, with shortwave reception for listeners outside Finland, more and more listeners tune in to the program’s Web site, through podcasts and MP3 downloads.

It also reinforces a global trend among lovers of Latin to try to speak it, not just read it.

In Paris, Mr. Blanchard, an avid Latin speaker, helps run the “Circulus Latinus Lutetiensis,” or “Paris Latin Circle,” whose members meet monthly to converse, produce works of theater or just play cards, all in Latin. “We use the Internet to chat, in Latin,” he said.

Antti Ijas, 27, a graduate student writing a thesis on Old English poetry, helps Mr. Pekkanen translate news spots and field e-mails from listeners across the world. “We do get linguistic feedback,” he said, “especially from Germany,” where Latin studies have a deep tradition.

Most comments, he said, focus on pronunciation. There are endless debates about how Cicero would have sounded as he addressed the Senate — and about the choice of words for modern things like “golf course” (“campus pilamallei”) or iPad (they haven’t found one). “I don’t use an iPad myself,” Mr. Pekkanen said with a chuckle, adding: “We quarrel with the Germans.”

But many listeners think the criticism is largely unfounded. “I’m often struck when I’m listening how well structured it is, how idiomatic, how precise the vocabulary is,” said Ms. Whittington, the Harvard professor.

The most common complaint about the broadcast is that at five minutes, it is far too brief. Mr. Pekkanen demurs. The choice of subjects and translation, he said, “takes much time.”

“In my opinion, five minutes is quite suitable,” he said.

Joonas Ilmavirta, a graduate student in mathematics and a regular listener, understands the challenge. “It’s very labor intensive,” he said. Mr. Ilmavirta, 25, who studied Latin in high school and occasionally helps Mr. Ammondt translate Elvis, keeps up his Latin by reading comic books in the language.

He only occasionally dips into serious authors. “If I could pick one, it might be Catullus,” he said, referring to the earthy Roman poet.

Many Finns know the broadcast because it precedes the popular Friday evening news, even though most these days cannot understand it.

Mr. Ilmavirta acknowledged that few of his contemporaries share his passion for Latin. “I don’t really know of young people interested in Latin,” he said. “And by young, I mean under 40.”

Mr. Ammondt, the Latin Elvis, said numbers did not matter. “Latin is the basis of Western culture,” he said. “That is why it is very symbolic.”

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