Linguist discovers new papal pickle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 March, 2013, 5:52am

When scholar John Whelpton and his small band of Latin linguists sit down at their next meeting on Friday in Kowloon Tong, it won't exactly be a papal conclave, but it will examine a very thorny question: did the first pope to stand down in 600 years get his resignation speech grammatically correct?

Pope Benedict's decision set in motion the process of choosing a new pontiff which will see 115 cardinals - one of them Hong Kong's John Tong Hon - gather in the Sistine Chapel.

It was Italian Giovanna Chirri's knowledge of Latin that meant she was the only Vatican reporter to understand the Pope was making a farewell speech, and saw her break the massive news story.

But even she didn't pick up on any mistakes. However, it didn't take Whelpton long to spot the errors after being sent an e-mail of the pope's speech in Latin.

"Although generally written in very good Latin and exemplifying all the main constructions, as it was posted by the Vatican, it contained three mistakes," Whelpton said. "Two were typos and one was a mistake in direct speech by the pope."

Since 2010, Whelpton, 53, has organised a Latin group in Hong Kong, where people of all backgrounds get together to speak the language.

On his retirement after 13 years spent teaching English at Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School in Sha Tin two years ago, Whelpton, who also teaches Latin, set up the group for "living Latin" enthusiasts.

Members gather at City Chinese Restaurant, in City University, one Friday a month.

Hundreds of years ago, when the Jesuits brought Christianity to China, all documents were written in Latin and all Chinese priests converted to Catholicism back then would have spoken it.

"Many books written at this time by Europeans on China are in Latin," said Whelpton. "That is why there has been a push in recent years to translate these texts from Latin into Chinese or English as they detail what these times were like."

Leading the push is the Latinitas Sinica, which promotes Latin on the mainland and was established by Beijing Foreign Studies University in 2012.