Post #15: A Grammar Nazi’s Failure in ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Monday January 26 2015
It’s been said that there’s no faster way to kill a joke than to explain it. But in the case of the 1979 film The Life of Brian, close scrutiny of the infamous Latin grammar scene reveals another layer of Pythonic parody.
The film is set during the first century CE in the province of Judea, which was controlled by the Roman Empire. It follows Brian Cohen, who is constantly being confused with That Other Messiah, from his birth in a manger that looks deceptively like the Nativity to his erroneous crucifixion.
In the first part of the film, Brian is tasked by the People’s Front of Judea with painting graffiti all over the walls of governor Pontius Pilate’s residence in protest of the Romans’ unfair treatment of the Jews. Brian intends to tell the Romans to go home in their native tongue, but he mangles Latin grammar, writing instead “People called the Romanes they go the house” (Romanes eunt domus). The correct Latin, as the Roman centurion points out, is Romani ite domum.
The humor of this scene comes from the irritation of John Cleese’s centurion at Brian’s grammatical ineptitude, which, as Monica Cyrino astutely notes, satirizes “the British educational system [in which] form is privileged over substance” (‘Big Screen Rome’ p. 191). Indeed, as he creeps away, the meaning of the graffiti finally sinks in and the guards begin to chase Brian--who is promptly saved by an alien spaceship that happens to be careening through Jerusalem.
The centurion is right to correct all three words of Brian’s original graffito: Romanes should be Romani, eunt should be ite, and domus should be domum. But he fails to notice Brian’s continued mistakes in Latin grammar with the third word.
CENTURION: domus--nominative? “Go home”? This is motion towards, isn’t it, boy?
BRIAN: Dative, sir? Ah, no! Not the dative, sir! Accusative! Accusative! Ah! domum, sir, ad domum!
CENTURION: Except that domus takes the…
BRIAN: The locative, sir!
CENTURION: Which is...?
CENTURION: domum. -um. Understand?
BRIAN: Yes, sir!
CENTURION: Now write that a hundred times.
BRIAN: Yes, sir! Thank you, sir. Hail Caesar, sir!
CENTURION: Hail Caesar! And if it’s not done by sunrise, I’ll cut your balls off.
The centurion is right that domus should be changed to domum because Brian is trying to express motion towards, which is indicated by the accusative case. He’s also right that domus is an exceptional noun that omits the preposition (ad here) in the case of motion towards.
But Brian is incorrect when he shrieks that domum is in the locative case. The locative is a fossilized Latin case used to indicate location (“at home”)--which is not what his graffito is trying to express. In any case, the locative of domus isn’t domum but domi. The correct form is in fact the accusative domum, which Brian ends up using anyway.
I admit that this is a tiny point of error, something that only an infinitesimal percentage of the population would notice. The obvious conclusion to draw here is that the Pythons made a (fairly innocuous) mistake. The Latin ends up being correct in the end, so what’s the big deal? But the grammar Nazi behavior of the centurion invites such close scrutiny of his corrections, and there are only three words to correct. The Pythons had the centurion make this mistake on purpose.
Several of the Monty Python crew went to distinguished universities that required some knowledge of Latin for entrance. Both Graham Chapman (Brian) and John Cleese (the centurion), who are also the first two credited writers on the script, went to Cambridge, which required Latin until early 1959. Director Terry Jones went to Oxford, which required Latin until 1960. Monty Python’s incisive jokes about Latin were thus drawn from personal experience.
In this scene, then, Monty Python is poking fun not only of inept British Latin students and their overbearing teachers, but of the incompetence of those teachers as well. What’s more useless than a grammar Nazi who doesn’t have the rules of grammar down?