When The Pope Speaks (Latin), Who Is Listening?

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation this week. He gave the announcement in Latin, but who still understands the language? Apparently there are more than 50,000 people in Finland who do. Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with Finnish radio broadcaster Tuomo Pekkanen about his Latin radio show.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, the staff at Nuntii Latini didn't need to search for their lead...

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: That's Pope Benedict XVI announcing his resignation in Latin, and Nuntii Latini shared the news with their listeners.

MRS. PEKKANEN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: The weekly program is the only news show, on which we know, that's done in classical Latin. It's produced by YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, and broadcast over short-wave radio, satellite and the Internet. The show's been on the air for 24 years. Tuomo Pekkanen, a retired professor of Latin at the University of Central Finland, writes the week's news summary, but he says Latin sounds better in a woman's voice. So his wife reads it in the air.

PEKKANEN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: Tuomo Pekkanen was preparing this week's broadcast when he heard the news about the Pope and went to the Internet to hear for himself.

TUOMO PEKKANEN: The Pope was talking very complicated sentences and I would say that such Latin is not suitable for school students.

SIMON: Pekkanen says Pope Benedict's ecclesiastical Latin is quite good but the printed version of his speech was not infallible, which he blames on papal secretaries in the Vatican. To be fair, Latin grammar can be daunting. The Mighty Python Comedy Troupe depicted this in their 1979 film "Life of Brian." In one scene, a Jew in ancient Jerusalem gets caught scrolling anti-Roman graffiti on a wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LIFE OF BRIAN")

GRAHAM CHAPMAN: (as Centurion) What's this thing? (Foreign language spoken). People called Romanes, they go to the house.

JOHN CLEESE: (as Brian) It says Romans, go home.

CHAPMAN: (as Centurion) No, it doesn't. Conjugate the verb to go...

SIMON: (as Brian) Er, Ire...

The Roman centurion seems more put out by the man's faulty Latin grammar than his opposition to the rule of Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LIFE OF BRIAN")

CLEESE: (as Centurion) Understand?

CHAPMAN: (as Brian) Yes, sir.

CLEESE: (as Centurion) Now, write it 100 times.

CHAPMAN: (as Brian) Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Hail Caesar, sir.

CLEESE: (as Centurion) Hail, Caesar.

SIMON: Professor Pekkanen hasn't seen "Life of Brian" but he thinks the English and American accent in speaking Latin is imperfect. So, I asked him to coach us in some strategic phrases, like Caesar's noted I came, I saw, I conquered.

PEKKANEN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: (Foreign language spoken)

PEKKANEN: Yes, that's perfect.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Wow. I think we're in full gear now. Can I learn another phrase?

PEKKANEN: For example, we use when it is question of corruption, (Foreign language spoken). One hand washes the other.

SIMON: How did he know I'm from Chicago? Tuomo Pekkanen, who writes the weekly news in Latin for Nuntii Latini for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. How do you say goodbye in your broadcast every week?

PEKKANEN: (Foreign language spoken)

SIMON: Which means?

PEKKANEN: Thank you very much. Good afternoon.

SIMON: And also to you. This is NPR News.

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