Monday, 26 January 2015

You say /espǝræntǝʊ/ ...

... and I say /esperɑ:ntǝʊ/. These were two of the pronunciations I  heard on Radio 4 this morning. Which underlines a problem with trying to create a 'universal language': it can't be done. The people who insisted on the /ɑ:/ did not try to do anything outlandish to the uniquely English /ǝʊ/, though I imagine there are carefully-spoken Esperantists who give it an [ɔ] (or whatever it's supposed to be).

In my pre-1966 boyhood (the date will have resonance for Roman Catholics living through the revolution that replaced the Latin Mass with the vernacular Mass, following the 2nd Ecumenical Council called by Pope John XXIII) I often heard the argument
 'That's the wonderful thing about having the liturgy in Latin: any member of the Faithful anywhere in the world can go into a church anywhere else in the world and feel at home.'
Erm... no they couldn't.  And people who said they could were either telling a pious lie (which I'm sure they believed), or were linguistically insensitive on an epic scale, or both.

This 'argument' was very popular among traditionalists opposed to the introduction of the vernacular Mass, But it holds very little, if any, water, as this  reminiscence shows:

During an exchange visit to a family living in Motteville, I went to a French church. I was an altar-boy (and fully paid-up member of the Guild of St Stephen to boot, I'll have you know), as I've said elsewhere, and knew the Latin Mass by heart. But it wasn't until the altar-boy rang the bell at the end of the 'Mass of the Catechumens' (the bell that signals
 <Hocus_Pocus interesting tidbit="1655 usage note†">
'OK, we've come to the Really Secret stuff, so if you haven't been baptized  you know where the door is' [that's a fairly loose interpretation,  but you get the gist]
 ) that I had any idea where the ceremony had got to; we  had arrived late, as Madame had a lot of children to organize, without the help of Monsieur, whose sole contribution to the family atmosphere seemed to be to sit at the table before meals shouting 'On a faim'. 
This is what happens when anyone tries to impose a universal language; because of local accidents of pronunciation and context, the beautiful system breaks down into a babble of mutually-incomprehensible dialects.
Incidentally, I can't stand the French pronunciation of the Latin à la française, although that [y] was more than likely what Fauré had in mind for his various liturgical settings.
Of course, Esperanto limps on; listen to the programme. But it never lived up to the dreams of L. L Zamenhof (its creator). And although articles like this big up its numerical importance, one can't but agree with that programme's conclusion: if you want a common language, learn English (which is just as well, since foreign language learning in the UK [to any useful level] seems to be the privilege of a dwindling minority of the [largely] privately-educated.)


Update 2015.01.27.10:15 – added note:

† In fact, it's just struck me that that supposed derivation from the crucial words of the Consecration of the Eucharist makes my choice of tag-name strangely apposite. (I say 'supposed' because the fact of its having been written down doesn't  cut much ice; in 1655 people were quite capable of preserving in aspic a piece of folk etymology [which may, in this case, it seems to me, be more ben trovato than vero]).

Update 2015.03.22.22:40 – added PS
And there's another pregnant coincidence, given the etymological link between crucial and crucify.

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