They Might Be Giants’ John Linnell Releases an EP of Songs in Latin

Those who know Latin know Wheelock’s Latin as the time-hon­ored resource for learn­ing the lan­guage of the Cae­sars. They also know how many years of inten­sive study and prac­tice goes into trans­lat­ing the textbook’s hefty clas­si­cal pas­sages. Read­ing Latin is one thing — writ­ing in the lan­guage is quite anoth­er: some­thing very few peo­ple do for any rea­son, oth­er than a per­verse kind of enjoy­ment that is most def­i­nite­ly a niche affair.

What about songwrit­ing in Latin? Pro­fes­sor Whee­lock doesn’t offer any spe­cif­ic instruc­tions for com­pos­ing pop music in the dead lan­guage, though clas­sics teacher and for­mer British Labour Par­ty MP Eddie O’Hara once trans­lat­ed Bea­t­les songs (see “O Teneum Manum” and “Dei Duri Nox” here). For a more casu­al approach, one could turn to a resource more in line with con­tem­po­rary teach­ing meth­ods — Duolin­go, where you can “learn a lan­guage for free. For­ev­er.”

For some rea­son, John Lin­nell, one of the two Johns in 90s alt-rock band They Might Be Giants, decid­ed on the Duolin­go approach while hun­kered down at home dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and — because he’s a song­writer, and a right good one, at that — he decid­ed to com­pose some catchy pop songs in Latin. Catchy, he could do (I’m still singing the cho­rus of “Bird­house in Your Soul” thir­ty-two years lat­er.) But the Latin, not so much.

After tak­ing a short course, Lin­nell writes, “I fig­ured I could write a few songs… I was soon dis­abused of the notion. I can bare­ly string two words togeth­er in Latin, and to bor­row from Mark Twain, I would rather decline two drinks than one Latin noun.” A career Latin­ist and child­hood friend Lin­nell calls “School­mas­ter Smith” came to his aid, trans­lat­ing his Eng­lish lyrics into Latin for him. “All cred­it for any suc­cess in this project is due to him,” he avers, “and any mis­takes and fail­ures are entire­ly mine.”

Trapped at home with his son Hen­ry, who played gui­tar on the 4‑track EP, Lin­nell record­ed and released Roman Songs (along with a t‑shirt!). Why? “All I can tell you,” he shrugs, “is that I’m deeply jeal­ous of peo­ple who are flu­ent in a sec­ond lan­guage and can apply that skill to their cre­ative work in a way that doesn’t seem like cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion of the most offen­sive and embar­rass­ing kind.”

No ancient Romans around to accuse Lin­nell of steal­ing their cul­ture, but they’d be hard pressed to rec­og­nize if they were. “HAEC QVOQVE EST RES” (“This is Also the Case”) and “TECVM CIRCVMAMBVLARE NOLO” (“I Don’t Want to Walk Around with You”) sound like clas­sic They Might Be Giants tunes. (The oth­er John, Mr. Flans­burgh, “strong­ly encour­aged this project and art direct­ed the pack­age,” Lin­nell writes.)

In fact, they sound so much like They Might Be Giants songs, I almost wish they were in Eng­lish, but as a lover of Latin I have to admit, it’s fun to learn these phras­es and melodies and walk around singing them like a Roman pop star. Lin­nell may be a lit­tle in the dark about his moti­va­tions, but I say, good on him: if there’s any way to make Latin live again, this may be it. Now we just need some­one tal­ent­ed and real­ly bored to step up and deliv­er clas­si­cal raps to keep momen­tum going…. Pick up Lin­nel­l’s Roman Songs EP here.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Com­pelling Case That the “Dead Lan­guage” Is an “Eter­nal Lan­guage”

Hip 1960s Latin Teacher Trans­lat­ed Bea­t­les Songs into Latin for His Stu­dents: Read Lyrics for “O Teneum Manum,” “Diei Duri Nox” & More

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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