Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A good man ... and the international language

Submitted for publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel for Wednesday 8th June 2011.


I’ve always had a fascination with language. It was given particular stimulus when I learnt the international language, Esperanto, as a twelve year old at Sandbach School, Cheshire.

Our teacher was Alderman Horace Barks, who had been Lord Mayor of Stoke on Trent almost twenty years earlier. To us boys he was a most eccentric figure. Old and grey, stout and moustached, he was rather like Hercules Poirot with a potteries accent. His curiosity was increased by the weekly sight of him riding into school (all the way from Smallthorne) precariously balanced on his moped.

It is amazing that any of us took the subject seriously - but I did, and became a friend of Horace till his death in 1983.

Horace introduced me to a language to overcome  misunderstanding and confusion, an ideal to bring people together rather than drive them apart, an aspiration for human unity in diversity, rather than division and distrust.

And thanks to what I learnt, I was able to travel throughout Europe and converse with French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Japanese, Swedish, Finnish and many others at the same time and in one language.

I could always give a good answer to those who thought that Esperanto had “already died out”, though I suppose the idealism of Horace Barks, who had been a stretcher bearer during the Great War, who saw so much death and destruction in his own youth, never quite found its fulfilment in the universal language.

Though it did inspire me. I developed a fascination for languages. I found an interest in words, their origins, their meanings, how they can make things clear - or obscure.

And as my faith grew, so did my awareness of the place of language for belief. Christian scholars expend much time and ink arguing over the meaning of words. Muslims hold that the Koran can never be translated from the Arabic, but only interpreted. And in the Catholic Church, we are now anxiously preparing for a major new English translation of the Latin Mass. There can be much hot and holy air exhaled over the printed word!

Two stories in the Bible deal with the diversity of language.

The first is in the book of Genesis. We read of the arrogance of the people of Babel, who built a great tower, believing that nothing was beyond them. But their society fell apart in a babble of languages.

By contrast, in the Acts of the Apostles, we read how, 50 days after Easter, the timid and fugitive apostles suddenly emerged into the crowds of the city of Jerusalem and, in many different languages, told the story of hope in the Risen Christ to the astonished pilgrims.

The tales tell us all we need to know about languages. They can create and consolidate division, cause misunderstanding and drive people apart. Or, they can be an illustration of the colour, vibrancy and dynamism of human life.

The second story is commemorated by Christians all over the world this weekend as the day of Pentecost, the final day of Eastertide, when the gift of the Holy Spirit drove out fear and division and inspired the Apostles to teach the whole world in its many languages.

In our Church in Hanley, this coming Sunday, we use many of the 20 plus languages spoken by our congregation for our readings, our prayers and our songs of worship in a great celebration of the Feast of Pentecost.

It is a moment of joy in the unity of our faith. Our languages do not divide us - but they express the wondrous diversity of God’s creation, our Hope in Christ, and I believe, express something of the idealism of that good man Horace Barks.

(The Pentecost celebration is at Sacred Heart, Jasper Street, Hanley at 11am on Sunday 12th June - followed by a party!)

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