Of all the Romance languages, none is more Romantic than Italian, at least in the sense that it has changed the least in its long descent from Latin to its current form. Whether the Italian spoken in recent centuries has a particularly close resemblance to Latin is another question, and one American Youtuber Luke Ranieri investigates on the streets of Rome itself in the video above. In order to find out whether modern-day Italians can understand ancient Latin, he approaches unsuspecting Romans and asks them for directions in that language, speaking it fluently and just as their ancestors would have back in the first century.
So, can Romans understand Latin? “Yes,” Ranieri concludes, “but they don’t always enjoy it.” Most of the individuals he addresses claim that they can’t understand him at first. But as the conversation continues — in Latin on one side, Italian on the other — it becomes clear that they can indeed figure out what he wants to know.
“Italians are almost universally exposed only to the traditional Italian pronunciation of Latin (called the pronuncia scolastica), otherwise known as the Ecclesiastical Pronunciation,” Ranieri notes in a comment. But “in this video, I am using the Restored Classical Pronunciation of Latin as it was pronounced in Rome two thousand years ago.”
He may have had better luck at the Vatican and the Colosseum, but the Italians he meets in Rome do rise to this challenge, more or less, though few do it without hemming, hawing, and of course, attempting to use English. For the language of England has, one could argue, risen to play the same role in wide swaths of our world that Latin once played across the Roman Empire. This situation has its advantages, but in the heart of many a language-lover it also inspires some regrets. Though full of Latinate vocabulary, English arguably falls short of the beauty of the genuine Romance languages. And even the most obstinate Anglophone has to admit that, compared to Latin, English lacks something: a certain gravitas, let us say.
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.