Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lorem Ipsum:Situs vilate inis etaevern et

As you stroll through narrow cobblestone alleys in small German towns or do some castle hopping along one of the countries rivers, you notice inscriptions on old buildings.

You'll recognize a date, generally the year a building was put up, or you may see a religious inscription. There is no need to understand the meaning -- personally, I am happy enough when I decipher "Jesus" or see the number of any psalm.

Superficial tourists like us come and go, dedicated researchers have been in the business of collecting  and interpreting inscriptions for a long time. There are numerous scientists investigating "epigraphics", as they call it, for instance at the Munich university.

The main problem for contemporary tourists is that fewer people than in the old days know Latin, while most of the inscriptions around Europe are in Latin.

Translations are not provided.

Which, incidentally, reflects the main criticism of the current German government with regard to documents of the European Union. Most of the latter come in English and French only. German officials are clamoring for having more docs in German.
Somehow, the concept of a lingua franca seems to elude many members of today's German "elite".

Back to our Latin inscriptions.

The other day, we saw "Situs vilate inis etaevern et".  A few seconds of research unearthed the variant et situs vilate inis et avernit, and minutes later we found that they belong to a class of inscriptions called "situs" inscriptions.

The inscriptions mean what? "Sieht aus wie Latein, ist es aber nicht" -- literally translated "looks like Latin but isn't".

Minor rearrangements of the letters of this German phrase, such as removing an "h" and an "e" and changing the "w" to "v" and breaking up the words and glueing them together in a different way, and voila, you see Latin where there is no Latin.

This is some serious in your face humor by German builders and craftsmen of past centuries, and the first five or so Google search results pages in English don't explain it. A few pages in German do, but that's it.

We wouldn't do this today, or would we?

Actually, we do. Have you ever opened a software program only to be greeted by a Latin text starting with "Lorem ipsum..."?

The dumb explanation from the lorem ipsum web site is "It is a long established fact that a reader will be distracted by the readable content of a page when looking at its layout. The point of using Lorem Ipsum is that it has a more-or-less normal distribution of letters, as opposed to using 'Content here, content here', making it look like readable English."

No, it doesn't look like readable English. It looks like unreadable Latin.

Exactly like situs vilate inis etaevern et looks like unreadble Latin.

Next time you see any "situs" inscription on a medieval or classic German building, take a picture and send it to us with details of the location, so we can make the first ever "situs" map.

Just for fun and as a nod to those craftsmen of old.

[Update 9/2015] The recent reader comment on real or fake Latin prompted this update.

All the fake "situs" inscriptions I've seen so far were made during restoration work carried out on ruined castles and manors. There are very few castles and fortifications in Germany that survived the turbulent, violent centuries intact. Well into the mid 1800s, a town wall tower or a castle on a hilltop had a single practical purpose: it served as a quarry. Only when "new money" generated by the industrial revolution met romanticism did wealthy individuals or organization go: hey, there are lots of dirt cheap fixer uppers for sale!
Timber frame buildings footed completely or in part on existing quarried or blown up structures were a preferred, fast way of creating living space and inns. Since "period" inscription, aka. "something medieval", was Latin, the faux inscriptions were put on.

Think of it as the 1800's construction industry equivalent of the pirate's eye patch, a stereotypical cultural artifact.
If all pirates had worn eye patches, the famed raids and battles would have been nothing but maritime ship pile ups caused by one eyed 'drivers'.

Are there real Latin inscriptions?

Yes, plenty. Roman, of course, and ecclesiastical galore, as well as one businesses and residential buildings that made it through time or have been restored with late 20th Century or 21st Century accuracy.

1 comment:

  1. We just came from this castle. My daughter is learning Latin. I have looked everywhere for a reasonable translation and they are all in GERMAN. Sadly, I don't speak German. So, what you are saying is that this is German written to look Latin as a medieval joke? And it doesn't really mean anything in Latin? Argh.