Whose idea was it to publish you in Latin, Mr. Duck?

Who hasn't been struck by the truculent duck with the gift of gab? Yet have we left unsung the gifts of his polyglot tongue? Indeed we have. Not so, however, the European Language Institute - oh, no - for this august seat of learning in Recanati has taken proper note of the world's most traveled member of the family Anatidae by granting him - in anno Domini 1984, his fiftieth anniversary - the honorary degree of homo omni doctrina ornatissimus!

And what - you ask - does that mean?

Frankly, I don't know, but Donald Duck does, and he told me - at least I think he told me - in a talk we had after the ceremony in which the European Language Institute added this extra feather to his cap and gown. I went to Recanati for this extraordinary event, secretly hoping to interview Donaldus Anas, as he is known in academic circles.

He did, in fact, agree to quack, and did so at length with great enthusiasm.

''You see, Mr. Rogers,'' he began, ''I achieved my world fame - ahem, if I may allude to myself with unbecoming but justifiable pride - by speaking the languages of the 76 lands where Walt - that is, Mr. Disney - asked me to perform.''

He spread his feathers as he waxed even more eloquent.

''Surely you must understand, Mr. Rogers, that we Americans merely skate on the surface of a culture unless we can speak the language. When we master the vernacular, we enter into the heart of a nation - we understand what they think, why they think it, and the way they think it. Don't you think so, too?''

''Yes ... yes ... I do indeed,'' I gasped, so stunned that my tongue got somewhat tied.

''You see, it's this way,'' he went on. ''For the past 50 years I've spoken Italian here in Italy - just as you do - and naturally I was no longer on the surface of Italian culture; but at a certain point I faced up to the fact that I hadn't gone deep enough. I hadn't reached the roots. So I learned Latin!''

''Incredible!'' I exclaimed. ''You have done something that I have excused myself for not doing, because I thought I never had the time for it.''

He waggled the tip of his wing at me. ''May I admonish you with a line from Plautus? Abige abs te lassitudinem!''

''Great Scott, Donald, what does that mean?''

''It means, specifically, that you must banish all idleness; and it also means, in a general way, that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person - like me - to do it.''

''OK, what I'd like to ask you now is to tell me about your new book, just published by Mondadori of Milano.''

''Shoot.''

''Could you give me its title?''

''Easy. 'Donaldus Anas atque nox Saraceni,' probably the most adventurous tale in which I have starred. It's a lovely book. It has XXXVI pages, printed in Technicolor on slick paper, in hard-cover, and you know what?''

''What?''

''It's selling like gelati in the middle of August. Not only are the Italian kids buying it - because it's a way of getting down to their Latin roots - but also their Italian parents, who want to see if they can still remember what they learned in school.''

''Do you mean to tell me, Donaldus, that Italian kids no longer study Latin?''

''Nope. Not since anno Domini 1977, when it was abolished in the lower grades - well, if not abolished, at least it is no longer mandatory.''

''That's deplorable!'' I said.

''Yes, it really makes you cry, and now they're all growing up to be ignoramuses like you, Mr. Rogers - all speaking Italian without knowing its roots.''

Bridling a bit, I ventured, ''Now see here, there may be lacunae in my learning, but I'm hardly ignorant. I am well aware that Italian is degenerate Latin - and as Latin degenerated into the Italian vernacular, it became one of the most beautiful languages in the world. How do you account for that, Mr. Duck?''

''I'll bite, how?''

''Well, because Italian tongues were lazy and avoided those Latin combinations of consonants that make the tongue quack - I mean clack! Take our English word administration, for instance. In the original Latin it is administrationis. When it came into English the consonants were softened. The Italians, however, changed that ugly 'd' into an 'm' - amministrazione - and the word sings!''

''Oh, these musical Italians,'' he rhapsodized. ''If I may say so, Mr. Rogers , my next great ambition is to sing Alfredo in Verdi's 'Traviata.' ''

''An event not to be missed,'' I snapped. ''But let's get back to your book. Whose idea was it to publish you in Latin?''

''It was Lamberto Pigini's. He, too, has been deploring the lack of Latin in Italian schools. He's gotten out a whole series of books for kids - entertaining books, even comic books, that stimulate their young minds in English, French, German, and especially Latin - a dead language he's determined to keep alive.''

''They tell me that Pigini has also published your cousin Mickey in Latin - 'Michael Musculus et Lapis Sapientiae.' ''

At this his feathers flew.

''Look here,'' he screamed, ''that mouse ain't no cousin of mine! He's always trying to grab my glory. Actus me invito factus non est meus actus!''

''Which means?''

''An act done against my will is not my act! Whatever Mickey does, he does it ad captandum vulgum.''

''To captivate the rabble?''

''How did you know?''

''Well, you see, Donaldus, I have this book of Latin sayings....''

''Oh.''

''Come to think of it, you still haven't told me the official reason for your honorary degree: homo omni doctrina ornatissimus.''

He smoothed out his feathers and puffed up his chest.

''Aw, it's nothing much. It simply means that I am a superlatively erudite duck!''

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