Saturday, June 04, 2016

Esperanto vs. Latin

Last year's Summer School - a bit of Latin is included, naturally. Details for this year are here.

The weekend The Catholic Universe has printed quite a long letter of mine on the subject of Latin and Esperanto, in response to an equally long letter praising Esperanto in last week's Letters.

Last time I mentioned Esperanto on this blog - as an aside - I got some rather irate comments, so this time, well, come and get me! My sympathy with the idea of an artificial language of any kind is simply zero. If people want to learn Elvish, Klingon or Esperanto, they are, I suppose, no more wasting their time than if they were playing patience on their IPhones (which seems to be de rigour on the commuter trains out of London these days). I don't want to criticise such harmless recreations. But to propose it as an educational task for children is as insane as suggesting it as a substitute for Latin (or any other language) for comunication within the Church. Artificial languages are languages without a history, culture, or literature, or at least without one going back before (in the case of Esperanto) 1870.

I have far more time for the revival of dead languages, even if this seems equally Quixotic. People learning Cornish or Manx from books are putting themselves into contact with a culture which cannot easily be expressed in any other language. Great written (or indeed aural) works of art and science, which are among the most important aspects of a culture, can only fully be appreciated in the original. If the language dies, works written in it die as well, and the culture is mortally wounded. This is why anyone who takes Irish culture serious must be serious about the Irish language. Anyone who cares about the acheivments of Scots Gaelic poets must care about the preservation of Gaelic. Interestingly, one of the Latin Mass Society's early supporters was a proponent of the Welsh language.

As well as being the repository for a major part of the Church's thought and culture, Latin, of course, is not a dead language. It is not no-one's cradle language, but it is remains a working language. Things are composed in and translated into Latin, which isn't something which happens in dead languages.

If you want to learn Latin, come on the LMS' own summer training course in the last week of July.

To the Editor of the Catholic Universe.

Catherine Venture (Letters, 27th May 2016) writes to promote Esperanto as an international ‘bridge’ language.

Given its steep decline in popularity in the UK, I suppose it needs all the help it can get. But since it is based on the Romance languages—the European languages derived from Latin—with a bit of Yiddish thrown in, it would be more logical to suggest studying Latin as a ‘bridge’ language, a function it actually served for many centuries.

Ms Venture objects that ‘Latin is only ok for the Classical scholar’, inviting the obvious retort the Esperanto is only ok for the Esperanto scholar. Unlike Esperanto, in which there are no Government-recognised qualifications, Latin is taught in 600 state schools, up from 100 a decade ago. Esperanto is taught in four.

No doubt Esperanto is easy to learn—at least for speakers of major European languages—but Latin was described as the ‘language of the Church’ by Pope Benedict XVI. Pope St John Paul II said it was a ‘disgrace’ not to know Latin, and that the Church has an ‘obligation’ towards it. Bl. Pope Paul VI called it a ‘divine’ language, and Pope St John XXIII praised Latin, ‘full of majesty and dignity’, precisely because, as Ms Venture says of Esperanto, it is ‘equally friendly’ to native speakers of all languages.

The Church desperately needs a common language, for communication between her children who come from every nation, culture, and language on earth. What Catholic Esperantists miss, of even greater importance, is the need for a common language of communication between the generations. It is essential for serious students of the Church’s theology, law, history, and literature, to be able to read what their predecessors wrote, in the original.

For the Church, the only possible ‘bridge language’ is Latin. It is time all Catholic schools recognised their obligation to open the door to the treasures of Catholic culture and thought to their pupils, by equipping them with Latin.

Yours faithfully,

Joseph Shaw
Chairman, The Latin Mass Society

For more on the study of Latin in the Church, see the Position Paper on Latin in Seminaries.

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  1. Position Paper won't open as it is "damaged"...

  2. Works fine for me.

  3. so was Stalin right to shoot all the Esperantists?

  4. I wonder if his attitude, and Hitler's, was inspired by anti-semitism.

    1. Very likely, but Esperanto was enthusiastically promoted by the Eastern Bloc countries in the 70s, presumably as a way of recruiting potential sympathisers in the West.
      Incidentally, you can have lots of fun googling the words "Esperanto" and "cult" together ...

    2. Ha ha, yes that is amusing.

      The connection with Warsaw Pact 'internationalism' is interesting too.

  5. I have been speaking Esperanto for about fifty years, and I am certainly not irate. I am sorry to see the confrontational heading “Esperanto vs. Latin”. The fact is that both have their place in the linguistic universe.

    I did five years of Latin in school and I do not regret it. This poor Anglican has often made use of it in deciphering memorial plaques in cathedrals in Britain and elsewhere. The Latin taught in schools and used a little in the Roman Catholic Church was not the language of a people. It is, like Esperanto, an artificial creation.

    My own experience after many decades of using Esperanto is that a planned language can be "internalised" as well as any mother tongue. This suggests to me that the distinction between natural and artificial language is more apparent than real.

    Unlike Latin, Esperanto has been used and still is used as a home language. I’ve met about a score of native speakers of Esperanto over the years, mostly the children of parents (e.g. one Japanese, one German) for whom Esperanto is the normal common language.

    Latin has its domains and so has Esperanto. They do not need to be seen as rivals. There is plenty of room for them both.

    1. Come to that, Latin has been a cradle language for some people. I wouldn't recommend it, for the reasons indicated in the post.

      I've nothing against Esperanto except the claims made for it in this particular letter in the Catholic press.

    2. "Unlike Latin, Esperanto has been used and still is used as a home language."
      That's a false dichotomy. There are of course also people who use Latin as a home language. (I happen to know a couple...)