Why pig Latin simply doesn't translate

"DO YOU have," I was asked by a lady at dinner in Paris last week, "an English equivalent of our langue de bois." "I don’t think so," I replied.

Langue de bois is the dead pretentious language of officialdom, dressed up to disguise poverty of thought and, often, the absence of any real meaning. And indeed, while we may not have the word, we have the thing. For example: "Oldham Social Services Department are investing resources into a newly formed Capacity Building and Research team to directly inform and develop its’ [sic] Commissioning Strategy and Service Development. At this current time the department is seeking both to lead and develop broad partnerships to meet the challenge of both user focused and sustainable services." This advertisement appeared in the Guardian, alongside many others couched in the same language. It went on (I assume but have forgotten) to invite applications for a job in this team. Would you know what you would have to do? If so, how?

There is a test that we used to be asked to apply to anything we wrote. It was "will it translate?"; in particular, "will it translate into Latin?" If the answer was "no", there was something wrong with the sentence. This test of translation was one way of distinguishing sense from nonsense. It would be an uphill struggle trying to translate the Oldham Social Services Department’s advertisement.

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The teaching of Latin has now been abandoned in most schools. It is an optional subject even in those where it is taught. No doubt many of the claims made for its value as an educational tool were absurd. No doubt many of us who did learn Latin never learned enough to be able to read Latin authors for pleasure, though this is one of the best reasons for submitting to the toil of learning any foreign language.

But Latin, as we were taught it, had one great virtue. It made you think about the meaning of individual words - their range of meaning too - about sentence structure and the grammatical relation of one word to another. Though we also spent many hours studying English grammar - parsing and both General and Particular Analysis - it was really Latin that enabled one to make sense of this. Studying Latin clarified one’s understanding of English. The fact that English sentence structure is so very different from Latin’s compelled you to pay close attention to meaning, whether you were translating from English into Latin or from Latin to English.

Look at that first sentence in the Oldham advertisement where we are told that the department "are investing resources into" their newly formed team. Should it be "is investing" rather than "are investing"? Should that "into" be "in"? The same Latin preposition (also in) translates both, but in meaning ‘into’ is followed by a noun in the accusative case, in meaning ‘in’ by one in the ablative. So you have to think about the meaning even of small words such as prepositions. I think whoever drafted that advertisement got it wrong. It should be "in" not "into".

One may learn much about English grammar through a study of Latin, not because the two grammars are the same, for indeed they are very different, but precisely on account of that difference. Latin is an inflected language: English is now scarcely inflected at all. In Latin word-endings determine meaning, in English word order. Puer puellam amat and Puellam puer amat mean the same thing: the boy loves the girl. If you reverse the order of words in English, you change the meaning: The girl loves the boy.

Latin has been all but abandoned and the consequence is clear. Nonsense proliferates. It does so because many who write, composing advertisements such as that quoted, have never been required to think about language, about the meaning of individual words, the relation of one word to another and the structure of sentences. They have never learned respect for language. Of course you can write nonsense even if you have studied Latin and learned whatever lessons that study can teach you. Indeed, you may think that what I am now writing, and you reading, is nonsense. If so, however, it is the content that makes it that, not the style. It is at least lucid nonsense.

The nonsense of that advertisement is of another sort. It is certainly not lucid. Indeed, after reading it several times, I still don’t know what it means. I couldn’t translate it into Latin. I doubt if I could translate it into English. This ream is going to "in from a Strategy". Do you understand that? The department is "seeking ... to meet the challenge of … services." How do you meet the challenge - a stale phrase itself - of a service? These services are to be "user-focused". This means, I suppose, that they are to be directed towards the people who make use of them - which is surely the purpose of any service; think of the work done by a hairdresser or a waiter. And they are to be "sustainable" - a fashionable word that has all but lost any meaning.

Langue de bois … we may not have the word but have the thing. I propose that all government officials and those who write press releases be set to learn Latin. In traditional style, starting with Hillard & Botting and Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer. It would be good for their English and possibly for their soul. Or should that be "souls"?