July 05, 2002
Slurs On Top Of Slurs

Two more interesting posts (aren't they all?) on Megan McArdle's Live . . . from the WTC. The dispute started with this post, which inspired accusations of anti-Polish bigotry, outlined and rebutted in this post. (Permalinks don't seem to work: the dates are 6/28 5:29 PM and 7/3 6:16 PM.) In the latter, Megan's Polish coworker Ewa provided some untranslated prose, which a helpful reader then translated in comment #10. Two particular sentences caught my eye:

It is still possible in our country to see a growing number of young, uneducated, unemployed men under a shelter with beer, who hang around having stupid conversations ‘on all fours’ and have an extraordinary knowledge of “Latin”. Lack of education in our land is equal to stupidity and poverty.

As a Latin teacher and Latin lover -- I mean lover of Latin -- I demand an apology from Ewa, Max Sawicky, and the entire Polish nation for these offensive remarks. I don't know whether "Latin" is a Polish metaphor for obscenity, slang, or gibberish, but it must be one of the three, or a combination of more than one of the three. To associate speaking Latin with "lack of education" and "stupidity" is a terrible insult, and a slander on all of the hundreds of millions of Latin-speakers. Since they are all dead, it falls to us Latin teachers to object, and perhaps to file a lawsuit on their behalf. Depending on the precise connotations of the Polish word "Laciny" ("Latin"), the inhabitants of Latin America may also want to join our class-action suit.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 05, 2002 10:25 PM

According to an online dictionary of Polish slang http://www.univ.gda.pl/slang/hasla/slow.html , “Lacina “ (pronounced Wa-CHEE-na – “Laciny” is the genitive form) meaning ‘Latin’ does indeed have a slang connotation as ‘obscene language or expressions’. My guess is that this is a jokey usage, the equivalent of saying “Excuse my French” after inadvertently swearing in English (this is true for the UK at least, I’m not sure about America). In fact, Latin has always played an important role in Polish history since Poland-Lithuania was the most easterly outpost of Latin Christendom (as opposed to Greek Orthodoxy or Ottoman Islam). It was also necessary as a lingua franca to aid communication in a country made up of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, Germans, Ruthenians, even Tartars, Armenians, Swedes and Scots. Latin was the language spoken in the Polish Sejm (parliament) until the country was wiped off the map by its neighbours Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1795. It was the only language permitted in Polish schools (in any subject) until the 1770s. So the level of knowledge of Latin in the country was incredibly high, as Daniel Defoe remarked in 1728:“A man who can speak Latin may travel from one end of Poland to another as familiarly as if he was born in the country. Bless us! What would a gentleman do that was to travel through England and could speak nothing but Latin…I must lament his condition!”

The most interesting thing I heard about Latin in contemporary Poland was the fact that it was used by some Solidarity dissidents in the 1980s to avoid government snooping. Apparently, the standard phone-tapping machine used by the communists was programmed to start taping calls automatically when triggered by certain key words in any of fifty languages. For obvious reasons, Latin wasn’t one of these languages, so educated dissidents could enjoy phone conversations without the threat of eavesdropping simply by speaking in Latin. So, far from being a dead language, Latin actually played a small part in the decline and fall of the Russian Empire. And, of course, the world’s most famous living Latin speaker, Pope John Paul II, is also Polish.

Posted by: Murti Bing on July 6, 2002 05:54 AM

Whoah, I just tried to read that and got a headrush. Gonna go ly down.

Posted by: Hippy Boy on July 6, 2002 06:39 PM

Dear Doctor W.,

I didn't say those words, but since you are demanding an apology I don't see why I shouldn't comply. (Apologies are only difficult if they pertain to something you actually have done.)

'Jane' and I are on amiable terms now, and I have concluded that her 'Polish' remark was really about class bias. Still not good, but different.

My favorite H.S. teacher was my Latin teacher (took one year and derived endless benefit from it). Her name was Ms. Feldman and she told dirty jokes in class. Not really dirty, but stuff like "the international young man with the Roman hands and the Russian fingers." I was in eighth grade and it was 1963, so it was hot stuff. I loved her dearly.

I also dig your bugs.


Posted by: Max B. Sawicky on July 12, 2002 10:30 PM