Caleb’s Crossing by Gwendolyn Brooks, a recent selection of my book group, concerns young Puritans in early America, growing up and getting educated. The Latin they were studying contained a number of errors, showing exceeding carelessness, I thought, on the part of the author. Latin is maddeningly fussy about case endings and verb forms, but, really, why not just get a Latin teacher to advise you?
Latin depends on inflections–the changes made to words–to make meaning, so that in the sentences The boy kisses the girl and The girl kisses the boy, for example, the forms of the nouns boy and girl have to change in order for the sentence to work. When my students write a sentence with incorrect forms, I say, “I can’t translate it.”
Some websites record the sad errors that Latin tattoos often reveal. People imagine that Latin makes their tattoo extra elegant, and I’ve received requests to help wiser tattooees get their carvings correct. But the gibberish permanently inscribed on many people’s bodies shows evidence of notably unreliable internet translators. The profound sayings, alas, make no sense.
Vos Quod Mihi, a simple phrase cited on the website Classical Turns, is probably supposed to mean You and Me (which would have been pithy and effective in English, no?). Instead, the garbled Latin says something like All of you because for me. The vos messes things up from the start, because it connotes the plural you. Maybe the wearer means y’all, the only real English equivalent. Y’all because for me?
Even the prestigious Signals catalog, which appeals to the pretentious among us, contains a Latin error. Ad astra per alia porci, inscribed on a tee shirt, is supposed to say To the stars on the wings of a pig, reportedly John Steinbeck’s favorite humorous Latin saying (along the lines of to the heavens even with inadequate equipment). This faulty Latin is all over the internet. The correct Latin would be Ad astra per alas porci.
All the difference in alia versus alas. As written, the Signals tee shirt nonsensically proclaims To the stars through the others of a pig.