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First time visitor to the Latin Language SE. My attention was caught by this question: How does “It's totally fucked” translate to Latin? It wasn't the vulgarity that grabbed me though, it was the though of translating a modern English colloquialism to a dead language.

Modern English, whether American, British, Canadian, eh, or whatever, is constantly evolving, adding new nouns, incorporating new idioms, etc. The question above may be translated to Latin, but it seems Latin never had a phrase using that verb to express that sentiment, so can you really translate it, or just express the same sentiment without the vulgar connotations? We might as well ask how to translate "I have a Word doc on my flash drive with a list of emoji, AES-256 encrypted." Sure, "I have", "doc", "list", "encrypted" and maybe even "emoji" taken as "pictograph" can translate to Latin, but surely "flash drive" and "AES-256" have to analogue in Latin (and apologies for calling you Shirley.) Modern concepts can be difficult to express in the English language as it was just 136 years ago (South Park 1207, "Super Fun Time", "We don't know nuthin 'bout no fancy door code.")

I can understand it's possible to speak in Latin to a large degree, just as Euclidean geometry can describe the same universe as Einstein's Relativity, to some degree, and translation of Latin to English seems perfectly reasonable. How can a dead language be used to express the things, concepts, and ideas that develop so distantly from it's origins? It may take pages of Latin to describe how a flash drive is made, operates, etc. and still not convey all the knowledge encapsulating one's understanding of "flash drive". Isn't it pretty much a one-way street?

  • I would try posting this question on Linguistics.SE as it's pretty general in nature, not really Latin specific. I don't, however, anticipate many answers given the way it is formulated, though I feel a certain potential in it (hence an upvote). – tum_ Feb 8 at 17:37
  • I agree about the Linguistics SE, although maybe someone has some ideas specifically about the "It's totally fucked" translation, especially since 'fucked' is in this case is trying to convey something has gone very, very wrong but with the added sexual innuendo (which does seem to have a translation in that context). Also, I never expected to see an Airplane reference here. :) – Adam Feb 11 at 2:59
  • It depends on the situation. And there are problems the other direction as well. Consider the English monk who translated ancient Latin res publica as modern (to him) Old English cynedom (kingdom) since he had no notion of what a republic really was, nor a word or phrase for it even if he had had a notion. – C Monsour Feb 21 at 1:15
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While Latin is often considered “dead,” there is still a sizeable worldwide community of people who write (and sometimes speak) in Latin. As you probably know, the Catholic church still regularly publishes documents in Latin, there are some Latin radio programmes, and so on. These people have constantly been coining Latin expressions for the things of the modern world.

There are dictionaries that collect these modern coinages. Perhaps one of the most comprehensive of these is the Lexicon recentis Latinitatis, published between 1992 and 1997 by the Latinitas Foundation (Opus fundatum Latinitas, a Catholic institution which has since then become the Pontifical Academy for Latin, or Pontificia Academia Latinitatis), which contains 15,000 entries translating expressions from modern Italian (there is also a version adapted to German). Here are a few samples, though it has to be said that many translations are really just Latin paraphrases of the meaning, such as brevissimae bracae femineae for hot pants, which literally means “very short women's trousers” – true enough, but more of an explanation rather than a translation.

Another well-known resource is the Neo-Latin Lexicon compiled by David Morgan and Patrick M. Owens.

How does one go about finding Latin words for modern phenomena? For one thing, much that is new comes from the areas of law and politics, science and technology, which are already rich in Latinate words. A few examples:

  • Computer is based on the Latin verb computare, and so is translated as computatorium
  • Airplane is aeroplanum
  • Spaceship is navis spatialis (think spatial navigation in English)
  • Parliament is parlamentum
  • Feminism is feminismus

In other instances, new words have to be coined from the existing vocabulary. But here, Latin is in no different position than any other language, including English. For example, around the year 1825, more or less every language in the world had to find a word for “railway.” Somehow they all managed, sooner or later. (They often did this by taking words that stood for similar, non steam-powered systems.) In case you wonder, the Latin word is ferrivia, similar to Italian ferrovia.

To take your example of flash drive, the good people at the Latin Wikipedia have decided to translate flash memory as memoria fulgurea, based on fulgur = lightning. Whether that is a good translation is debatable, as fulgur does not convey the notion of speed like the English word does.

Many languages can express (to quote from the question) “ideas that develop so distantly from its origins.” After all, even though Latin is certainly older, the English language has been with us for more than a millennium. And yet here we have two ancient Germanic words, flash and drive. They do not magically convey all kinds of knowledge about how flash drives are made and operate. (In fact, most people who use the word “flash drive” day in and day out have only the faintest idea how one is made and how it operates.) The expression “flash drive” would be perfectly intelligible for an English speaker 200 years ago, if you travelled back in time and talked to him, but he could not possibly guess what you would be referring to. So it is with Latin – we can use it to talk about the modern world, but a person from ancient Rome, while the words might be familiar to him, would be completely at a loss what we are talking about.

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