To be or not to be

Universal tongue: He may be the ‘People’s Pope’ but the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, has to deliver his speeches in Latin, the official language of the church. – AFP

LATIN words are rarely used in Malaysia, except for some legal terms. Those of us old enough will recall that many of our premier schools had Latin mottos.

These prominent schools didn’t want to be known as just another school but be recognised as institutions. They were indeed institutions and lived up to their names, too.

For example, my alma mater, St Xavier’s Institution, has a motto which reads Labor Omnia Vincit, meaning labour conquers all. Those words are woven into the emblem of our school badge!

In fact, the commonly used term, “alma mater,” which refers to a school, university or college, is also Latin, aptly meaning “nourishing mother.”

Our rival school, Penang Free School, has a Latin motto, too – Fortis Atque Fidelis, which translates to Strong and Faithful.

In Kuala Lumpur, the St John’s Institution has its Fide Et Labore, or Faith and Labour, while its rival, Victoria Institution, chose to go English with Be Yet Wiser, To Be A Scholar, Sportsman and A Gentleman.

Another prominent school, the Methodist Boys’ School, uses Ora et Labore to say Pray and Work.

Today, these words are likely to sound alien, and even unpronounceable.

The head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, as with his predecessors, delivers his speeches in Latin, the official language of the church.

At the prestigious University of Oxford, its degree conferment ceremonies are still conducted in Latin, although it’s near certain that most of the audience would largely be clueless.

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages.

The Latin alphabet has its roots in the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and was later derived from the Phoenician alphabet. In its earliest form, it was spoken in the area in which Rome was built – Latium. Yes, it’s that ancient.

So, when The Star recently used the word “coram” to refer to a panel of judges, plenty of intrigue and ire was generated about the court reporter having wrongly spelt the word “quorum.”

It could seem like yet another example of the deteriorating standard of English among Malaysians and the English language media, but that wasn’t the case in the end.

The news report had referred to a Federal Court decision that it would not hear a fresh appeal by the National Registration Department (NRD) in the “bin Abdullah” case, and instead, proceed to delivering judgment.

Chief Justice Richard Malanjum, who chaired a new panel which was constituted for the rehearing of the appeal, decided not to pursue it as there were enough judges remaining in the previous panel which had heard and reserved the decision in the appeal.

The report said that there was a coram of three judges and “let this matter be left to the rest of the remaining members of the panel to deliver the judgment. We do not want to rehear this matter.”

Someone posted a picture of the supposed error circled on a copy of the newspaper and sent that submission burning through social media. Very quickly, we had an avalanche of complaints, even though we had used the word regularly in past court reports.

A Google search will reveal that “coram” is used in phrases that refer to the appearance of a person before another individual or group.

It’s a commonly used Latin phrase in the legal circle, although most of us would be more familiar with the word “carrom” rather than “coram.”

But in the age of social media, where we “forward” messages without checking for accuracy or authenticity, the impact can be swift, and dire.

A more familiar legal term to us is “locus standi”, which means a place for standing. However, from a legal perspective, it means whether the person has any standing or right to appear in court.

Another commonly used Latin legal term is sub judice, which means “under judgement” or that a case, or matter, is under trial or court proceedings. So, it’s deemed inappropriate for open debate, particularly by the media.

To comment publicly on cases “sub judice” can be an offence leading to contempt of court. Junior reporters on the court beat learn this phrase early in their career.

And then there is “ultra vires”, which has nothing to do with any kind of virus. It is a Latin term which means “beyond the powers”, while “intra vires” means “within the powers.” Again, it is widely used by lawyers, judges and court reporters, although the average news reader is often blissfully ignorant.

In legal speak, “Habeas corpus” refers to a legal application from the court to seek the release of a person who was unlawfully arrested. It is also Latin in origin.

It’s interesting how many of us aren’t aware that the language is commonly adopted in daily English.

Some examples; contrary (opposite), post (after), bonus (good), aqua (water), status quo (existing state of affairs), et cetera (so forth), quid pro quo (a favour for favour), persona non grata (unwelcome), incognito (to conceal one’s identity) and sic (error). Of course, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s stewardship of his party had the media describing his position as the “de facto” leader of PKR, meaning unofficial leader.

There are more – e.g. or exempli gratia, which refers to an example, ad hoc (to this), bona fide (in good faith), mala fide (bad faith), alibi (elsewhere), versus (against), verbatim (word for word), vice versa (turned position, literally, but it means interchangeable), pro bono (no payment) and even the word “extra” – which is a Latin preposition meaning outside or in addition.

Other words with Latin roots include “arena”, which apparently means big statue, but commonly refers to a centre stage. Today, in the modern English language, it is used to refer to a sports complex. “Circus” also has Latin origins and means a race track.

And the more grizzled of us will remember that while delivering his presidential speech at the party’s general assembly, then Umno president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad quoted the famous line, “Et tu, Brute” from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Et tu, Brute” means “even you, Brutus?”, and was notably uttered by Roman dictator Julius Caesar to his friend Marcus Junius Brutus as he was brutally stabbed to death by a band of conspirators.

Pronounced “et too bru teh,” it was of course, Shakespeare’s artistic license to draw up an interesting quote as Roman historian Suetonius, a century and a half after the assassination. It’s been said that Caesar said nothing as he died, but the flipside is that his last words amounted to a Greek phrase meaning “You too, child?”

But more importantly, it was interesting that Dr Mahathir chose to use this famous line from Shakespeare, suggesting he reads the works of arguably the greatest writer in the English language.

Dr Mahathir wasn’t specific and didn’t identify the person in his address. To this today, it has remained a subject of political speculation, with a few names bandied.

Even if Latin barely seems alive, it has certainly evolved to at least become a part of modern English.

It’s unlikely that Malaysian politicians will be quoting Shakespeare anytime soon. So, wouldn’t it be fair to say they don’t make politicians, writers or even schools like they used to anymore?

As one report rightly put it, “when a politician talks about the vox populi rather than the ‘voice of the people’ or ‘public opinion’, they climb to a slightly higher level of intellectual discourse.”

It looks like Latin isn’t quite so dead after all.

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Opinion , Politics , Wong Chun Wai , On the Beat


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