Dialogue on the Threshold

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Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The language(s) of the dead

De Lingua etiam et sermone Mortuorum oriuntur quaestiunculae. Mortuorum Dialogos finxere multi, sed qua lingua colloquuntur mortui, nescio. Materna, inquies, seu vernacula, qua usi sunt in terris: ut Graeci loquantur Graece: Latini Latine, et sic de caeteris gentibus. Sed tempora mutantur, et populi, et linguae, de saeculo in saeculum. Hodierni Romani Veterum Latinorum non callent linguam: nec quamcunque Latinitatem, vulgus Italorum: Qui confabulabuntur hi populi cum suo Romulo, aut Numa? Celtarum et Scytharum linguas non retinent hodie, qui easdem sedes per occidentem et septentrionem incolunt. Denique quid fiet a nobis, incolis hujusce Insulae, qui tot habuimus origines et linguas? Britannice loquemur in corporibus aëriis: vel Saxonice, vel Normanice, vel ut hodie fit mixte et composite? Alteram fore suspicor Linguarum confusionem, Babelis illa graviorem, si in hunc modum vita futura ordinanda esset. 

 Thomas Burnet, De Statu Mortuorum et Resurgentium Tractatus, London, 1727, p. 89, recte 93


The minor questions of the language and speech of the dead now arise.* Many have invented Dialogues of the Dead, but in which tongue the dead converse with each other I know not. In the mother tongue or the vernacular they used in their own countries, you will say, and thus Greeks would speak Greek, Latins Latin, and so on for every other nation. But the times, as well as peoples and languages, are forever changing. Today's Romans, the Italian rabble, would be ignorant of the language of the ancient Latins and any Latinity whatever: by what means will such people talk to their Romulus or their Numa? The languages of the Celts and the Scythians, who inhabit the same homelands in the West and North, no longer survive. What then of us, the inhabitants of this Island, who have had so many different origins and languages? Will we speak British in our aerial bodies, or Saxon, or Norman, or the present-day composite tongue? I suspect that there would be another Confusion of Tongues, worse than that of Babel, if the future life were arranged in this way.

* Burnet has been discussing whether there be a polity of the dead in their aerial state during the interval between death and the resurrection. Will the dead form a promiscuous republic, or will they be separated according to their various nations, e.g. French, Spanish, German, British, etc.?

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