Linguā latinā

by Jahnabi Barooah


I write after immersing myself in a week of intensive lessons in Latin at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS). I’m going to start as a full-time student at HDS in the fall but no one, least of all I, could have predicted that I would choose to study Latin over the summer. I grew up speaking Assamese and English, and apart from mandatory lessons in Hindi throughout middle school and high school and a year of Sanskrit, I did not study a new language. I had the desire. For years I’ve been drawn to sacred chant and poetry — Gregorian chant, the call of the muezzin, the lyrical beauty of Rumi and Tagore’s poems. The romance of French and Italian. But I either thought that the task of learning a foreign language would be too daunting, or that I just “did not have the time” or that it would have little practical application outside of personal fulfillment.

When I tell people I’m studying Latin, they usually nod politely or ask me why I’m devoting my time studying a “dead” language. Apart from aforementioned attraction to Gregorian chant, learning Latin is a result of my intellectual and spiritual love affair with the Catholic Church. Prior to starting the summer language program at HDS, I was assistant editor of HuffPost Religion for nearly two years, and the most exciting events that I covered during that time were the resignation of now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. Many people (outside of the world of religion, that is) forget this but Benedict XVI gave his resignation speech in Latin and Italian news agency ANSA’s Vatican reporter Giovanna Chirri was able to break the story about his resignation because she knew Latin. As an aspiring religion reporter interested in the Catholic Church (back then anyway), I thought that I if I wanted to cover the Vatican, I should learn Latin (and Italian). [Side note: Latin is not entirely “dead” — it may even be the ideal language of the social media age, as some have said recently. If you keep an eye on Catholic Church news, you know that Pope Francis has amassed more followers in his Latin account than in his Arabic, German and Polish accounts.]

But more than anything else, I’m learning Latin so that I can understand the ancient prayers and canticles of the Catholic Church. There is something profoundly beautiful and holy about a Mass sung in Latin, about praying in a language that you know millions of people have prayed in for hundreds of years. I think a commenter on a video of the Nicene Creed sung in Latin described it well when he said, “They [the chants] lift the mind to Heaven.”