Two days ago, news outlets reported that newly built Cambridge houses had been spray painted with Latin graffiti (shared with me by Jonny Grove). The stories followed some predictable narratives. In one bearing the heading ‘Here’s how they do graffiti in Cambridge‘, the vandal(s) had a ‘classical education’. The BBC version led with the quote ‘Only in Cambridge’ and the subsequent Homes daubed in Latin graffiti. The clear implication in both was that Cambridge, home to one of the world’s most renowned and elite universities, produces sui generis hoodlums. After all, perhaps the most famous Latin graffiti scene known was written by former Cambridge (and Oxford) students.
But the graffiti was not the work of the highly educated gentry; it’s the product of google translate. ‘Locus in Domos Loci Populum’ is (as Jonny discovered and a number of BBC readers had suggested to the agency) what you get when you put ‘Local homes for local people’ in the online translation tool. Indeed, a really, living classically educated person quoted in the story, Mary Beard, one of the most prominent faces of publicly engaged classics, told those writing the story as much in rather polite terms: “This is a bit hard to translate, but I think what they’re trying to say is that a lovely place has been turned into houses.” In other words, the graffiti didn’t make much sense.
Although the Latin phrasing was not particularly clear, the overall message was. New homes had been built on a former pub, and, marked at £1.25m and up, are pricing locals (and I reckon many younger people) out of the market. Mirroring and surpassing a trend seen in other sought-after real estate markets around the world, home prices rose 50% between 2010 and 2015 in the university city. And now the average home price is £500.000. Strong economic growth in a tech hub underpins much of the increase. But additional graffiti on the homes, namely euro, dollar and yen symbols followed by the phrase ‘Go away’ suggest that in the vandals’ eyes international buyers (and capital) are the ones driving prices beyond local affordability.
So this is a protest against rising home prices brought about by the international mobility of highly-skilled workers and the policies that enable this trend (The Guardian headline gets it more right: Cambridge homes covered with Latin graffiti in protest at rising prices). So local anger at the international elite. What language should express this protest? Under other circumstances, English, an international lingua franca, might seem like the obvious choice. But it is likely also the language of the protestors. So what better way to protest international buyers driving up local home prices than to use the former international lingua franca, the language of public (private) schools, something so irrelevant that only the elite can afford to know it. A little Latin’ll do the trick. Stick a phrase in the smartphone, and paint the result.
And it doesn’t matter if it’s correct. Like a number of famous tattoos in languages that the bearers don’t understand, importance lies in the foreignness, exoticism, allure, prestige, or in this case the elitist connections that the language suggests to our imaginations.
So the language might be irrelevant, but it still conveys ideological meaning. Here it is used not by a ‘different class of vandal’, but rather vandals targeting that ‘different class.’ That the need for super-fast news has obscured this, and instead left us with a story that more or less conforms to our preconceptions about people who know and/or use Latin–just one of many stories that effectively play to our biases, rather than explain something that might not fit our preconceptions–this, this lack of imagination and curiousity, better reveals the poverty of our education than the poor performance of google translate (although I reckon this will play a part in our self-destruction as well).