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Mottos

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Our nation is filled with fantastic universities. Great places where we can spend thousands of dollars to learn about the wonders of finger painting and 14th century fart jokes. Real world skills and knowledge. Prestigious places like Harvard, whose motto is “veritas”. Or Brown, whose motto is “in deo speramus”. Michigan, “artes, scientia, veritas”. I’m sensing a pattern here. All the mottos are in Latin. Well what the fuck? This is ‘Merica, speak English! Nobody speaks this crap anymore, so how come every university has a Latin motto? It’s not even just the USA. Across the world, Latin is used for school mottos, as if every school just said “fuck it, nobody reads this anyways, might as well put it in a dead language”. I’m going to use my big college grad brain and bullshit some possible reason for this trend.

Possibility the First: Universities started as Catholic monasteries. It seems weird, given the love-hate relationship the Church has with science, but they essentially invented the modern university. Back when things looked more like Game of Thrones than Breaking Bad, the Catholic Church served as a repository for Western literature and knowledge. Greek and Latin works were copied and preserved by monks, probably because Catholic monks are a little masochistic in their own way—and having to make copies of Cicero’s bullshit all your life is torture enough for passage to heaven. Some of these monasteries ended up with huge collections of works. They naturally turned into “universities” with research libraries as a result. The language of the Church is Latin; they’re old school like that. Given this history, monasteries-turned-universities like Oxford (established 1096), University of Leipzig (1409), and the University of Paris (1170), may have Latin mottos because monks spoke Latin, or out of respect for that tradition.

Possibilitas Secunda: Only a few unis are old enough though to qualify for the above reason, so another is needed to explain universities that are relatively newer, like in the US. Latin was not just used by the Church. It was the primary language for scientists for nearly 700 years. This is a world before Google translate. How do you get scholars to share their research when they all come from different countries? Make them all learn a common one, but which one? Whichever language is picked as the language for science carries a lot of political repercussions. The basis of medieval knowledge and the Renaissance were the Classical works of Greek and Roman thinkers. So screw it; just make it unfair to everyone by using a dead language nobody speaks. Thus New Latin—hey, maybe the Church had a hand in that too? Prior to the 1900s, works were principally written in Latin, including Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Copernicus. Given Latin as the “language of science”, it is not much of a brain-teaser to see why universities, the workshops of scientists, would have mottos in Latin. Furthering the point, this is why new animals are all given scientific names in Latin, even today.

Raison Troisieme: Because Latin was prominent as the science language, and because the Catholic Church was heavily involved in education, and because we are in the Western World…I forgot where I was going with this. Classics has been at the forefront of education curriculums up until the Space Age. Even now, kids learn from the Trivium. Harvard’s old entrance exams even featured Greek and Latin translation sections. That’s right, knowing Greek and Latin was a requirement to get in to Harvard—presumably graduating involved animal ritual sacrifice or something. This may help explain Latin mottos as well; they were basically saying “if you can read this, you can probably get into this school”.

Die vierte Möglichkeit: I don’t know why universities are so keen on using Latin for their mottos. Maybe they just think it sounds good. No, seriously, witty phrases and mottos just sort of sound better in Latin. It’s old, dead, foreign, mysterious, and sounds erudite. It’s a good enough language for J.K. Rowling and many others to use as the basis for all those spells and magic incantations, so it might just be that Latin is used purely for the aesthetics (Harry Potter yelling spells in English might not have had the same effect). This is more of a personal feel, but omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina.

See? Even that made me sound badass and intelligent. Maybe when Star Trek becomes reality, universities will have Klingon or Vulcan mottos instead.

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