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Parvum Opus: Followers Flock To Pope's Latin Twitter Feed

Jun 19, 2013
Originally published on June 19, 2013 9:40 am

Against all Vatican expectations, the pope's Twitter account in Latin has gained more than 100,000 followers in six months and continues to grow.

Followers are not exclusively Roman Catholics or Latin scholars, but represent a wide variety of professions and religions from all over the world. Some go so far as to claim that the language of the ancient Romans is perfectly suited to 21st-century social media.

Pope Benedict XVI launched the first papal Twitter account last December in eight languages, including Arabic. Soon, there were millions of followers.

Then letters started pouring in asking why the pope wasn't tweeting in the official language of the Vatican.

When the Latin account was launched in January, Vatican officials didn't expect more than 5,000 Latin nerds, that is, followers. But by May, it had surpassed Polish and was in a tie with German at more than 100,000.

"The surprise is that nerds are in all walks of life — cab drivers from South Africa, homemakers, journalists," says Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, one of the six language experts working in the Vatican's Latin Office.

He says followers are of all ages.

"Kids 8 years old, up to people who are 88 are also following the conversations and participating in the conversation," he says.

Gallagher says his office gets letters — as well as tweets — from all over the world. Many are from Muslims and atheists who don't necessarily like the Catholic Church but are grateful it's keeping the ancient language alive.

He acknowledges that Twitter can encourage shallow thinking and knee-jerk reactions, but is convinced Latin's economy makes it better suited for tweeting than many other languages.

"It tends to express thoughts as briefly, as concisely, as precisely as possible," Gallagher says.

If Twitter had existed during Roman antiquity, the person with the most followers likely would have been the satirist Martial, creator of the epigram.

Here's one in 78 characters:

Omnia promittis cum tota nocte bibisti; mane nihil praestas. Pollio, mane bibe.

Gallegher says this translates to: "You were making all kinds of promises when you drink at night, you're just a little tipsy and say whatever you want, but in the morning, you don't follow through, so Polio why don't you drink in the morning?"

Or this famous poem by Catullus:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris, nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

"I hate and I love at the same time, why do I do this, perhaps you ask, I've no idea, but I feel it happening and I am being tortured by it."

In just two lines, 82 characters, the meaning of life, a perfect tweet.

When the Vatican was preparing to launch the Latin Twitter account, it ruled out the Latin word for the sound of chirping birds — pipilare – saying it didn't sound serious enough for the pope.

So officials took a cue from the orator Cicero who once wrote to a friend while he was in a hurry: "Breviloquentem iam me tempus ipsum facit," he wrote – Time itself is forcing me to speak briefly.

The name of the Twitter account is Summi Pontificis Breviloquentis, the briefly speaking supreme pontiff.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. There words of another world leader are captivating huge audiences. Against all Vatican expectations, the Twitter account of Pope Francis, in Latin, has gained more than 100,000 followers and it's not just Catholics or Latin scholars. The followers come from religions and professions all over the world. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tells us why the language of the ancient Romans is perfectly suited to 21st century social media.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Pope Benedict launched the first papal Twitter account in December in eight languages, including Arabic. And soon, there were millions of followers. Then letters started pouring in, asking why isn't the pope tweeting in the official language of the Vatican. When the Latin account was launched in January, Vatican officials didn't expect more than 5,000 Latin nerds - that is, followers. But by May, it had surpassed Polish and was in a tie with German at over 100,000.

MONSIGNOR DANIEL GALLAGHER: The surprise is that nerds are in all walks of life, cab drivers from South Africa; homemakers, for lack of a better term; journalists.

POGGIOLI: Monsignor Daniel Gallagher is one of the six language experts working in the Vatican's Latin Office. He says followers are of all ages.

GALLAGHER: Kids who are eight years old, up to people who are 88, are also following the conversation - participating in the conversation.

POGGIOLI: Father Gallagher says his office gets letters, as well as tweets, from all over the world, including from many Muslims and atheists who don't necessarily like the Catholic Church, but are grateful it's keeping the ancient language alive. The Vatican's Latin expert acknowledges that Twitter can encourage shallow thinking and knee-jerk reactions, but he's convinced that Latin's flexibility where one word translated into English or Spanish would require many more, makes it better suited for tweeting than many other languages.

GALLAGHER: Because it tends to express thoughts as briefly, as concisely, as precisely as possible.

POGGIOLI: If Twitter had existed during Roman antiquity, the person with the most followers would have been the satirist Martial, creator of the epigram. Here's one in 78 characters, including spaces.

GALLAGHER: Omnia promittis cum tota nocte bibisti; mane nihil praestas. Pollio, mane bibe. You were making all kinds of promises when you drink at night, you're just a little tipsy and say whatever you want. But in the morning, you don't follow through, so Polio, why don't you drink in the morning?

POGGIOLI: Or this famous poem by Catullus.

GALLAGHER: Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris, nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. I hate and I love at the same time, why do I do this, perhaps you ask, I've no idea, but I feel it happening and I am being tortured by it.

POGGIOLI: In just two lines, 82 characters, the meaning of life, a perfect tweet. When the Vatican was preparing to launch the Latin Twitter account, it ruled out the Latin word for the sound of chirping birds, pipilare, saying it didn't sound serious enough for the pope. So they took a cue from the orator Cicero who once wrote to a friend while he was in a hurry: Breviloquentem iam me tempus ipsum facit. Time itself is forcing me to speak briefly.

The name of the Twitter account is Summi Pontificis Breviloquentis, the briefly speaking, supreme pontiff. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.