Hear Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Performed in Classical Latin

By the ear­ly nine­teen-nineties, at least in the Unit­ed States, Latin instruc­tion in schools was­n’t what it had once been. Stu­dents every­where had long been show­ing impa­tience and irrev­er­ence about their hav­ing to study that “dead lan­guage,” of course. But sure­ly it had nev­er felt quite so irrel­e­vant as it did in a world of shop­ping malls, cable tele­vi­sion, and the emerg­ing inter­net. Thir­ty years ago, few stu­dents would have freely cho­sen to do their Latin home­work when they could have been, say, lis­ten­ing to Nir­vana. But now, in the age of Youtube, they can have both at once.

In the video above, the_miracle_aligner cov­ers “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” in a medieval (or “bard­core”) style, using not just peri­od instru­men­ta­tion but also a trans­la­tion of its lyrics into Latin. Since its release a few years ago, this Colos­se­um-wor­thy ver­sion of the song that defined grunge has drawn thou­sands upon thou­sands of appre­cia­tive com­ments from enthu­si­asts of Nir­vana and Latin alike.

As one of the lat­ter points out, “most Latin words rhyme because of con­ju­ga­tion,” and when they don’t, the lan­guage’s unusu­al free­dom of word order pro­vides plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty to make it work. Still, the song con­tains more than its share of tru­ly inspired choic­es: anoth­er com­menter calls it “just immac­u­late” how “the ‘hel­lo, how low’ rhymes as ‘salvé, parve.’ ”

As tends to be the way with those of us here in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry inclined to dig deep into a lan­guage like Latin, some take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get into char­ac­ter: “I vivid­ly remem­ber the night Gaius Kur­tus Cobainius the Elder pre­miered this song at the Amphithe­ater of Pom­pey in the Sum­mer of 91AD. The plebs went nuts and were throw­ing Ses­ter­ti and Denari on the stage. I even saw a patri­cian woman lift her tunic! Oh how I miss those days.” In what­ev­er lan­guage it’s sung, the instant­ly rec­og­niz­able “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” will send any Gen­er­a­tion-Xers in earshot right back to the stren­u­ous slack­ing of their own youth. And the cry “Oblec­táte, nunc híc sumus” would have cut as sharply in the age of bread and cir­cus­es as it did in the MTV era — or, for that mat­ter, as it does now.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

How Nirvana’s Icon­ic “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” Came to Be: An Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by T‑Bone Bur­nett Tells the True Sto­ry

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

Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” Played By Musi­cians Around the World

The First Live Per­for­mance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” (1991)

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Moira says:

    Won­der­ful, mag­nif­i­cent, clever. Bless. You

  • aKarejKar n-Lynne says:

    The worst part is I can nev­er “unhear” that! What’s next? A con­vent of Carmelite nuns belt­ing out Soundgar­den’s “Jesus Christ Pose” in Ara­ma­ic?! Oh, the human­i­ty!!!!

  • Wes says:

    Cool stuff. Is the time sig­na­ture changed because of the style?

  • Tracian says:


    Except for the butcher­ing of Latin pro­nun­ci­a­tion, mak­ing the whole endeav­or real­ly grat­ing to any­one who ever both­ered to check whether every oth­er lan­guage is sup­posed to sound like Eng­lish or not. [Spoil­er: not at all]

  • Ramin Dadmanesh says:

    Hon­est­ly, it does­n’t hold a can­dle to the orig­i­nal … and I’m not a huge Nir­vana fan.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.