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Latin Lovers...when to say yes and when to say no

18/09/2012

Not many people these days studied Latin at school, and even fewer studied it at University. But for those who remember the days of chalky gym slips and Latin mistresses, using deliberately incorrect Latin can send shivers of guilt up our ageing spines. What am I talking about? How many of you have argued in favour of fora over forums, only to be looked at by younger or less classically-inclined colleagues as a grammatical equivalent to Miss Haversham? Furthermore there's not much joy in taking the grammatical high ground; if you insist on correct usage you risk being labelled at best eccentric and at worst pedantic.

I struck this dilemma in the service design world. Design specialists use a tool called "personas" to help them create and implement products and services that will work for different types of customers. To suggest to a service designer that the word personas is incorrect and that they should use personae instead would just be weird.

But what happens when using the wrong plural is not just grammatically incorrect; it is also culturally incorrect? Until quite recently the Maori people were usually referred to non-Maori writers as Maoris. There is no such word, but nevertheless many editors, including the editors of some of New Zealand's main dailies, insisted on the archaic Anglicised plural. It is now pretty much accepted that the correct plural is Maori, but the issue highlights the question; when should we and when should we not apply the plural of the original language?

While we now find it perfectly acceptable to apply the correct plural of living languages (paparazzi is a common example), what about poor old Latin? As an editor faced with this question my first thought is my client followed quickly by my client's audience.  It would be plain wrong when drafting or editing a service design document to change personas to personae, but when working on an academic text on psychoanalytical theory, for instance, it would be entirely appropriate.

And it is fun to be a little bit antediluvian every now and then.