Wednesday, 31 December 2008

what's Latin for "veni vidi vici"

There's some interesting language-related things happening in The Fires of Pompeii (which should have been called Doctor Who and the Laurel Wreath). The idea is, and this was established back in 70s Doctor Who, that the TARDIS translates alien languages for the Doctor and companion. In the new series, the Doctor reveals that the TARDIS makes a change in the companion's brain so she can comprehend any language.

In "The Fires of Pompeii", the Doctor and Donna are in ancient Pompeii on volcano day (AD 79), and... well here's the transcript:

DONNA (sobered)
Hold on a minute, that sign over there's in English.
She points to a board advertising 'Two amphoras for the price of one'.

Are you having me on, are we in Epcot?

No, no, no, that's the TARDIS translation circuits, just makes it look like English. Speech as well, you're talking Latin right now.


Uh huh.

I just said 'seriously' in Latin.

Oh yeah.

What if I said something in actual Latin? Like, 'Veni, vidi, vici'? My dad said that when he came back from football. If I said 'Veni, vidi, vici' to that lot, what would it sound like?

I'm not sure. You have to think of difficult questions, don't you?

I'm gonna try it.
She walks to a stallholder.

Afternoon sweetheart. What can I get you, my love?

Ehm... Veni, vidi, vici.


Huh? Sorry? (gesticulating wildly) Me-no-speak-Celtic. No-can-do-missy.

She walks back to the Doctor.

How's he mean, Celtic?

Welsh. You sound Welsh. There we are, learnt something.

Doctor Who is produced by BBC Wales, so you can see what they did there. Anyway, what conclusions can we draw about the TARDIS translation circuits? Clearly they don't just let you comprehend languages, they change your speech into another language, without you noticing.

And when someone affected by the translation circuits speaks to a native in the native's own language, the translation circuits render it as another language of the period and place. Or Welsh. In AD 79 the language we call "Welsh" was a putative language called Proto-Celtic. The stallholder is clearly hearing Proto-Celtic because he says "Celtic." He wouldn't recognize modern Welsh; it sounds nothing like what Proto-Celtic would have sounded like. The Doctor said "Welsh" because he was trying to be funny, but he could just as easily have said "Breton" or "Gaelic".

What made me think about this in the first place was Donna's Latin pronunciation. Her pronunciation of "vēnī vīdī vīcī" is something like

[ˈvɛneɪ ˈviːdeɪ ˈvitːʃe]

(Video here.) In one of the commentaries, David Tennant says they were coached by the BBC pronunciation department on the Latin. But I don't think that Donna's pronunciation is Classical Latin, the Latin of AD 79. In Classical Latin it would be pronounced something like

[ˈweːniː ˈwiːdiː ˈwiːkiː]

Would a Latin speaker of AD 79 have understood Donna's pronunciation? I don't know how different the Vulgar Latin of the period was from Classical Latin - how far palatalization had gone, etc. Maybe the translation circuits don't just translate what you say, they have to translate what you think you're saying. She thinks she's speaking the same language as the stallholder, the translation circuits interpret it as the Latin the stallholder speaks, then change her speech to another contemporary language.


JD said...

'The stallholder is clearly hearing Proto-Celtic because he says "Celtic."'

Not necessarily - he might be hearing another language entirely which he wrongly identifies as Celtic.

The fact that he can't speak Celtic himself makes me question his ability to identify Celtic when spoken by another.

goofy said...

Good point. Perhaps it was really Old High Gallifreyan... that might make sense as a TARDIS default language.

Adam Roberts Project said...

I don't want to overthink this, but it could be that Donna looks Celtic (big boned, red hair etc); so when he hears her gabbling gibberish he assumes that's what she's speaking. Although he'd surely be more likely to think: 'hmm, Gaulish'. I wonder how they dubbed that scene in the French transmission.

goofy said...

I thought the same thing about Donna's red hair, but there's something important that I should have added: the joke is repeated at least twice later in the episode, when the Doctor speaks Latin.

Preventing the Apocalypse said...

Besides the fact that walking up to somebody in a marketplace and saying "I came, I saw, I conquered" makes as much sense as a shark on Jupiter, I thought that the joke there was Donna's horrible butchering of the pronounciation. It sounded NOTHING like the latin, and if I hadn't known what she was trying to say I would'nt have understood her.

goofy said...

Yes, Donna's pronunciation was bad, but I don't think that was the joke. They would have had to set up what the accurate Latin pronunciation was, and they didn't do that.