July 5, 2013 6:25 pm

First Person: Laura Nissinen ‘I read the news in Latin’

The Finnish radio broadcaster works for a radio programme that aims to make the ancient language a living one
Laura Nissinen©Maija Tammi

Laura Nissinen replies in Latin to listeners who write in about her radio broadcasts

People are always surprised at first when I tell them that I read the news in Latin. Mostly they want to know if it’s even possible to use Latin to describe the modern world. And since the answer is yes, they become intrigued. Those who already know about Nuntii Latini are happy to meet the person whose voice they’ve heard on the radio.

Nuntii Latini is a weekly overview in Latin of the international news – or conspectus rerum internationalium hebdomadalis as we say. It’s broadcast by YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company. I joined as a part-time correspondent in 2001, when I was still an undergraduate, and I started as a newsreader in 2003. I’m also a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki, working on a project on how the Romans arranged their houses.

For me, the fascination of my research is being able to take a glance at the everyday lives of the ancient Romans, and understanding Latin is key to understanding how they lived. I wanted to study Latin at high school but it wasn’t on the syllabus, so I had to wait until university.

Nuntii Latini was started in 1989 by Reijo Pitkäranta of the University of Helsinki, and Hannu Taanila, a journalist at YLE. They wanted to see if Latin could be used as a modern means of communication, to apply Latin in a new and original way. Finnish doesn’t have Latin roots and Finland wasn’t part of the Roman empire but, of course, there was a tradition of using Latin in the Catholic Church.

A typical broadcast of Nuntii Latini consists of five or six pieces. The first are mainly around the hot international affairs, then there’s usually some cultural or scientific news from Europe and one or two pieces specific to Finland too. In most cases, we use vocabulary that originates from ancient or medieval Latin. If there’s no appropriate word, we use neologisms created on the basis of Latin or, in some cases, Greek. For example, cruise missile is missile circumvagansmissilis means “that may be hurled or cast” and circumvagor means “to wander about”. Internet is interrete, from inter (between) and rete (net). Sometimes you might think that you have to come up with words for something that didn’t exist, but that’s not always the case. For example, there is an ancient word for applying make-up, fuco (fucare) – it was used by Cicero himself.

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We have had feedback and queries from more than 60 countries – and these are usually written in Latin so we reply in Latin: I do this once a month. People are really interested in the vocabulary; they ask for translations of rare words or ask how certain terms have been constructed. Pronunciation always raises questions, as there are several different European traditions of pronouncing Latin. We use the modern, scientific reconstruction of classical Latin to get as close as possible to the original. The length of the vowels is very important. For us Finns, it’s very easy to make the difference between short and long vowels, though it’s more difficult for English speakers.

There are enough enthusiasts to translate popular works into Latin – for example the first Harry Potter book, Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis – so Latin can be used for entertainment. It certainly makes studying certain languages easier. It has had a huge impact on the English vocabulary and even in Finnish we have words that originate in Latin. It still connects people.

I’ve heard there are some German radio stations doing the same now but we were here first. I think for some people it might be nostalgic to listen to Latin. And fun – you don’t get punished if you haven’t done your homework.

Sometimes the best innovations are these slightly unexpected ones. Finland isn’t only the country of Nokia and Angry Birds – we’ve helped make it the country of living Latin.

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