Prime-time spot for Latin radio in Finland | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.05.2013
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Prime-time spot for Latin radio in Finland

Since 1989 the Finnish broadcaster YLE has been producing the world's first news show in Latin. Breathing new life into dead words is a challenge for the show's presenters - particularly with digital neologisms.

In a busy café in central Helsinki, graduate student Antti Ijas scrolls through a Latin dictionary on his iPhone. He's looking up how to say "Deutsche Welle" in Latin.

"That might be 'unda teotonica,' but I'm not sure if that's the proper way," he told DW. "Oh dear. Do we use 'teotonica'? I've never written anything on 'German,' but... I can actually check that pretty fast."

He can be forgiven for not having the answer immediately at hand. It's unlikely the expression "German Wave" was a frequently used phrase in the language of Cicero.

"Unda germanica - that sounds actually quite good," Ijas says, having found the answer to his latest dilemma.

The reason for the translation difficulties is an obvious one: like most radio stations, Deutsche Welle doesn't broadcast any of its shows in Latin. But if it wanted to start, Antti Ijas would be the person to talk to - or rather, one of a small team who work on 'Nuntii Latini', a news program with a simple mission: to bring a touch of antiquity to international airwaves.

Tongue twisters

Over at Nuntii Latini, Laura Nissinen, another member of the radio team, is reading the news.

"Margaret Thatcher, pristina princeps ministra Britanniae octoginta septem annos nata, die Lunae mane diem supremum obiit. Causa mortis nuntiatur fuisse infarctus cerebri."

A picture of an on air sign found outside Radio studios.

Nuntii Latini has been broadcasting since 1989

The extract she reads is about the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's death in April, which highlights one of the many challenges that arise in what is surely one of the world's most unusual newsrooms.

"If there are proper names, no matter what language they are in - say Finnish or English - it's always difficult to sort of stop to pronounce the English or Finnish names, and then continue with the Latin," she told DW. "So in a way, even though the name itself is not difficult, it makes the whole sentence a little bit difficult to pronounce."

Latin iPhones

Another challenge for the team is to render technological concepts that would have seemed inconceivable to Caesar and his subjects comprehensible in Latin.

Over the years, the program has covered everything from "investigatio genorum" - gene research - to "arma perniciosa," or weapons of mass destruction. Some terms, translated into Latin, are lengthy and unwieldy. But some have a beautiful concision, like the word for an animal rights activist - "zoophilus" - or for a space station, "astropolis." While word "Internet" presents no problem, other technology does.

"Obviously, 'Inter' is Latin, and 'net' is 'rete,'" Nissinen says. "So we already have a perfectly good Latin translation for the word. I don't think we would translate 'iPod' into 'ee-poose' or something like that. That would be just silly. A Latinist might actually find that funny."

Latin's Finnish fans

Every week, the Nuntii Latini team chooses five or six stories, starting with the major international news of the day and followed by a cultural or educational item. And they don't neglect topics of interest to the local Finnish audience either

A symbolic picture of a retro radio (Photo: © Serggod - #32877444 - Fotolia.com)

Nissenen: "I think this is a way of showing that Latin actually can be fun and interesting"

Though Latin has had little direct influence on Finnish, the first piece of original music composed in the country was a setting for a Latin hymn, 'Ramus Virens Olivarum.' Latin inscriptions cover Helsinki's 19th-century university buildings, with the language opening a path to international academic dialogue. In the 20th century, and in a country that boasted both one of the world's highest-performing education systems as well as one of its more obscure languages, being good at Latin became a source of national pride.

Today, the radio news in Latin is a prime-time program, a fact of which Ijas is proud.

"I suppose in Finland, everybody knows Nuntii Latini because it's broadcast right before the regular news broadcast," Ijas said.

'Not a dead language'

Nuntii Latini now has an international rival. Since 2001, German radio station Radio Bremen has been producing its own Latin news show. For Antti Ijas, Laura Nissenen and their listeners, this German expansion is surely a sign that a language that once spread across half the known world is just as alive as ever.

"When we talk about Latin as being a dead language, what is even meant by that?" he asks. "It usually means there are no native speakers. But… English is thought to be more alive than it was before, because it's spoken by so many people as a second or a third language. So non-native use also counts towards a language being very much alive."

Nuntii Latini's fame has now spread far beyond Finland's borders. Antii Ijas deals with correspondence, answering emails from the show's international listeners, many of whom get in touch with the station in Latin.

He's had messages from the United States, Spain, and Japan, and over the years there's been feedback from people in almost every country - with German fans making a particular point of correcting minor flaws in grammar and pronunciation.

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