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Human Rights and a Universal Language

By Janet Bixby

The right to have a voice in a democratic process, to speak, to understand and be understood is the foundation of all human rights because how can any other human right be enforced without it. Leaders of the Baha'i Faith, from Baha'u'llah to the Universal House of Justice, have consistently advocated the choice of a universal aŭiliary language.

In addition to documenting that fact, this paper discusses the rationale for the importance of choice as opposed to drift and argues for the need to give this matter priority consideration.

The idea of a universal aŭiliary language for the whole of mankind is not a new one. The chief lesson in the Bible story of the tower of Babel seems to be that even a simple building project could not be successful without a common tongue. People as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes', Tolstoy, Pope Paul the 23rd, former President Carter and Linus Pauling have all made statements about the value of establishing such a language, and countless others have agreed. A hundred and fifty years ago, Bahá'u'lláh said:

"From the beginning of time the light of unity hath shed its radiance upon the world, and the greatest means for the promotion of that unity is for the peoples of the world to understand each others' writings and speech. In former epistles we have enjoined upon the Trustees of the House of Justice either to choose one language from those existing or to adopt a new one, and, in like manner to select a common script, both of which should be taught in all the schools in the world. Thus will the world be regarded as one country and one home." [1] And He goes on to explain that this international aŭiliary language must be taught in addition to the national language of the country so that everyone need only learn two languages.

The logic of this plan is evident to most thinking people. The only prominent individuals who have openly opposed the idea were Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao Tse Tung, and this opposition was fueled by their fear of the very unity which Bahá'u'lláh promised as its result. They all knew full well that it is easier to create enemies for people who are isolated and can be taught hate in a vacuum. Unfortunately, agreement has not led to action. Suggesting a universal aŭiliary language is like suggesting that we should all eat a healthy diet. Everyone agrees instantly, but if someone asks when they plan to make a change, most of them will opt for sometime in the future.

It's reminiscent of the story Bahá'u'lláh tells about Kamal Pasha, a leader in Persia who often visited him. Bahá'u'lláh says that one day this man was bragging about how many foreign languages he had learned, and He responded by observing that this was a waste of time and it would be much better if the world were to agree on one international aŭiliary language. The man expressed great pleasure at this idea so Bahá'u'lláh told him to present it to the leaders of the government. The man visited many times after that, but, according to Bahá'u'lláh, he never again brought up the subject of languages.

So the central question to consider is not whether such a language would be beneficial, but why it has not already been established. Why is mankind so reluctant to confront the problem?

For Baha'is as well as others, there seem to be several barriers that stand in the way of our taking any action, The first is the feeling among some Baha'is that language is really a superficial concern and that, if we can solve our spiritual problems, we won't let our inability to communicate in a common language stand in our way. The fact that any number of people have gone pioneering with no linguistic preparation attests to this. Such quotations as "Let deeds, not words, be your adorning," and "Study not that which begins in words and ends in words," have been read out of context to suggest that Bahá'u'lláh did not value language. I have heard people brush aside concerns about language by saying that a smile could convey more love than words ever could. However,

Abdu'l-Baha, who far excelled any of us in communicating love, had no such illusions.

"I am an Easterner," He said to a group of Esperantists in Paris," and, on this account I know nothing of your thoughts because an international language is not yet in vogue. Likewise you of the West are shut out from my thoughts. If we had a common language, both of us would be informed of each other's thoughts."[2]

In many other talks He complains of the need for a translator, and during one such talk, He said the situation reminded Him of two friends in Baghdad. One was sick and the other visited him. Through many gestures, He tried to ask how his friend was feeling. Finally his friend threw up his hands and said, "I'm dying!" Misunderstanding the gesture, the visitor said, "Praised be God."

A second and more common deterrent to our taking the language question seriously is the belief that, if the world does nothing, we will eventually drift into a solution to the problem without really having to choose. This is probably true, but the question is, is it desirable. The most obvious answer to that question would seem to be that a language chosen by historical accident may not be the best choice from the standpoint of facilitating mass communication in the most efficient and effective way. English, because of its irregular grammar and spelling, its divergent dialects and its complete lack of standardization, is generally considered to be one of the world's hardest languages to learn. Even its proponents admit that, before it could be effective as a world language, it would have to be considerably simplified and modified, either by intention or by evolution.

To further answer the question of desirability, we need to look at history and ask ourselves how languages have become dominant in the past. There are three factors which have caused languages to become widespread.

The first of these is trade. It has carried the language of every seafaring civilization. The problem is that the language developed in such situations is often limited to the words necessary for exchanging goods. Thus, it needs no abstract concepts and no literary elegance. How would we like to translate all our science and poetry into pidgin English?

A second and more effective way that languages have spread is through religion. Latin, Hebrew and Arabic come to mind. 'Abdu'l-Baha spoke about this.

"A different type of unity consists in sameness of language. Its effect is fuller. Often a language has become the means of uniting different nations and races. One experiences this particularly in the Middle East. For example, the Egyptians were a separate nation. Also the Syrians founded a great kingdom. The civilization of the Chaldeans was eminent in the ancient world. One language finally dominated over the others and united Egyptians, Syrians and Chaldeans such that they even forgot their former names and united even as one people. Today they call themselves Arabs. Why? Because the Arabic language came to dominate over the others. This proves to us that language is capable of uniting people."[3]

So we might ask the question why Bahá'u'lláh didn't simply choose a language for us since a common religion and language have had that effect in the past. Obviously no one knows the answer, but in the past, there have been some disadvantages to a language spread by religion. For one thing, the fact that they became ritualized and considered sacred, in some cases, solidified them so that history went on without them, only using them for religious services. For instance, the Latin Mass was finally translated to English because too many people had lost touch with it. In the Zoroastrian services Sanskrit is still used, but I have been told by priests that they no longer know it well enough to translate it. This is related to a second problem. Priesthood required learning, so the languages of religion came to separate the educated from the uneducated. This seems to be less true of Arabic, although I have been told by some Persian Baha'is that they did not read the Arabic writings.

Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, the only constructed language to have enjoyed any noticeable success in uniting people of different nations, observed that a language designed to create unity and world peace would have to be a language that could be spoken by everyone, rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike.

Bahá'u'lláh may have agreed. In any case, He makes it quite clear that the language for today must unite all people and that it must be chosen by all nations or by the House of Justice. He even went so far as to say that He would consider Arabic a good choice and that God would be pleased if it were chosen, but that He would not choose it.

The third way in which languages have been spread is the commonest. It is by conquest. Frequently, the victors spread their language by imposing its use on the conquered people and suppressing their use of their own language. The English suppression of Gaelic and Welsh and our own suppression of Indian and African languages come to mind, but the list is certainly much longer.

Now, of course, we like to think of ourselves as more civilized, but when people are forced to learn English for economic and political reasons, whether they want to or not, isn't this a more gentle version of the same conquest? The fact that the U.N., which started with 4 official languages, now has six and has considered adding 2 more, despite widespread claims that most diplomats know English, suggests that the nations of the world regard the recognition of their language as important. Language is a very precious thing. There is a reason why we refer to our mother tongue. Psychologically, if we are forced to give up our language, we give up part of our identity. So if we adopt the use of a new language for purposes of economic or political survival and do not have the concept that this is an aŭiliary language which is not meant to supplant our own, we are likely to do it grudgingly and only to the extent which is absolutely necessary.

On a more practical note, there is both economic and political power involved in a dominant language.

Economically, it is obvious that a country whose language is not official must bear the financial burden of all needed translation and that the citizens of a country whose language is favored have many employment opportunities as teachers, interpreters and translators which are not available to others. Also, the culture of the group will be more widely spread, providing other opportunities for enterprise. In meetings reported on the U.N. Internet Home Page, there is also considerable discussion as to whether or not employees should be required to know 2 official languages. Governments protested the unfairness of this requirement to those people for whom none of the official languages is native. So it becomes a question of economic equality or efficient communication.

Politically, if a language is my native language and your second language, which of us is most likely to be completely fluent and comfortable with it and which of us has the best chance of winning a debate or simply of clearly expressing our views? The answer is obvious. Also, if a government must choose between the person who can express its views most clearly and eloquently and the person who can express them in the right language, it must choose the latter. Add to this the many misunderstandings that may arise through inadequate translation and it is easy to see that any nation whose language is not an official language is at a disadvantage.

Thus, we are caught between equally unacceptable alternatives. The U.N. can't accommodate all languages equally without destroying itself through cost and inefficiency. On the other hand, it can't afford the misunderstandings and alienation that are likely to arise if too many languages are excluded in the name of convenience and cost saving. What the process of choosing an aŭiliary language would do is to involve everyone in the search for the best solution to a shared problem, thereby giving everyone a voice in the final decision and an allegiance to the world language chosen, just as they each have an allegiance to their own national language.

Consider what Abdu'l-Baha says about the purpose of this aŭiliary language. He says, "Unless the unity of language is realized, the 'Most Great Peace' and the oneness of the human world cannot be effectively organized and established; because the function of language is to portray the mysteries and secrets of human hearts. The heart is like a box and language is the key."[4]

In other words, the aŭiliary language is not to be merely for the purpose of speeding and simplifying the exchange of information, but, more importantly, for the purpose of facilitating true consultation. So how can we first force people into the use of one or two languages because we have the power to do it and then expect them to be ready to engage in productive and harmonious consultation in this same language which they had no hand in approving? This is why we must choose a language, before history repeats itself and power prevails.

This is urgent. Many people seem to regard it as less important than other problems, but, in fact, its solution would help to resolve most problems which are considered more important.

In the early nineteen hundreds, 'Abdu'l-Baha, in speaking of this aŭiliary language, said, "Through this means, international education and training become possible.... The spread of the known facts of the human world depends upon language. The explanation of the divine teachings can be spread through this medium. As long as diversity of tongues and lack of comprehension of other languages continues, these glorious aims can not be realized. Therefore, the very first service to the world of man is to establish this international means of communication. It will become the cause of the tranquility of the human commonwealth. Through it, the sciences and arts will be spread among the nations. It will prove to be the means of the progress and development of all races. We must endeavor with all our powers to establish this international language throughout the world."[5]

Still earlier, Bahá'u'lláh said, referring to a common language and script, "These things are obligatory and absolutely essential. It is encumbent on every man of insight to strive to translate that which has been written into action and reality." He felt so strongly about this, that the need for a common language and script is the only requirement for a world government which is written in the Aqdas. While certainly no one should presume to read His mind it might be speculated that He knew that, if people could communicate in a common language of their own choosing, they could figure out most other requirements for themselves.

And what was a serious problem demanding urgent attention a century ago is now a critical barrier to any resolution of world problems at a time when many of them cry for immediate solutions. The lack of an aŭiliary language costs the U.N. more than a billion dollars a year. In a global conference such as the Women's Conference, the lack of an aŭiliary language costs well over a million. And this cost must be borne by a world in which half the population lives in poverty. In its 1995 Message to the U.N., the Baha'i International Community recommends seven conferences, commissions or taskforces to be established in addition to four more courts. All of these would be of tremendous value, but, as it is, the U.N. lacks money to fund already established activities.

In the 1995 message mentioned above, the Baha'i International Community recognizes this problem. In advocating for the establishment of an aŭiliary language, it says, "In addition to saving money and simplifying bureaucratic procedures, such a move would go far toward creating a spirit of unity.... We foresee that, eventually, the world cannot but adopt a single, universally agreed-upon, aŭiliary language and script to be taught in the schools worldwide. The objective would be to facilitate the transition to a global society through better communication among nation and a reduction of administrative costs for businesses, governments and others involved in global enterprises, and a fostering of more cordial relationships between all members of the human family."[6]

Now it is eight years later, and the language problem still goes unsolved and gets less than its fair share of attention. The final barrier to action on this question by Baha'is is the pervasive belief that there is nothing we can do about it and it's not our responsibility. This attitude is noted in the 1995 message mentioned above as a barrier to the progress toward world unity generally. After commenting on the unfortunate lack of connectedness between the average citizen and the activities and discussions of the U.N., it goes on to say, "...the discussions about the future of the international order must involve and excite the generality of humankind. This discussion is so important that it can not be confined to leaders... On the contrary, this conversation must engage women and men at the grassroots level. Broad participation will make the process self-reinforcing by raising the awareness of world citizenship and increasing support for an expanding international order."[7]

And if this is true for people generally, it is doubly important for those of us who live in a power democracy, the leadership of which is a major influence in the United Nations. For years, people have made proposals to the U.N. to improve its functioning, and for years, people have criticized it when it failed to do so. But, in fact, the U.N. is only as strong as its member states let it be.

"The U.N. lacks, not only the clear authority, but the requisite resources to act effectively in most instances." Says the Baha'i International Community, "Accusations of the U.N. are indictments of the member states themselves."

The United States is a very powerful member state, and we, as citizens of a democracy, are responsible for the quality of world citizenship this member state displays. In its discussion of the importance of grassroots input, the Baha'i International Community says, "The primary objective of governing bodies on all levels is to advance the civilization of humanity. This objective is difficult to satisfy without the inspired and intelligent participation of the generality of humankind..." [8]

Our forefathers knew this. That is why they made participation of the average citizen in the process of government an obligation which underlies every freedom we have. The Baha'i Community in the U.S. has already demonstrated that, if it raises its collective voice to champion a specific goal, it can be heard. The success in gaining support for Iranian Baha'is proves it.

Now, it's a wonderful thing that Baha'is in this country were able to do so much in gaining government support for their fellow believers in Iran, but isn't it even more important that we gain support for mankind as a whole and for those policies which Bahá'u'lláh Himself has told us will bring unity to the planet. The adoption of a universal aŭiliary language would facilitate the solving of every other problem which faces the world. Since the U.S. government frequently complains of inefficiency and excessive spending at the U.N., it could be justifiably urged that the U.S. should push for a commission to study the problem as soon as possible and a deadline by which time the U.N. would choose its aŭiliary language. The U.S. might even make up part of its debt to the U.N. by funding this project. Because of the neglect of the question of language, this suggestion is probably the most important and least controversial request that could be made to the U.S. government regarding the U.N. To take one principle of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings which requires political action and so educate the people in power that they would make it a reality would take energy, focus, organization and persistence, but, in this situation, Baha'is would have help. There are many rational, well-intentioned people who would agree with the Baha'i viewpoint. They simply don't feel able to lead the way in taking action.

In " The Promise Of World Peace", one of the pervasive theses is whether or not humanity has the collective will to solve the world's problems without being subjected to unthinkable calamity which will make their solution inevitable.

"There is, however, a paralysis of will;" it says, "and it is this that must be carefully examined and resolutely dealt with. This paralysis is rooted, as we have stated, in a deep-seated conviction of the inevitable quarrelsomeness of mankind which has led to a reluctance to entertain the possibility of subordinating national self interest to the requirements of world order and in an unwillingness to face courageously the far-reaching implications of establishing a united world authority."[9]

Unfortunately, we Baha'is are not immune. Just as others fail to believe in the ability of human nature to change, we fail to believe in our power to prevail against their deep-rooted conviction of hopelessness. The problem becomes overwhelming and paralyzes all of us. As Baha'is, we must fight this paralysis of hopelessness, because we have assurances that other people don't have and we have a blueprint for a new world order which it is our duty to share. Our job is transformation, not only of individuals, but of governments. One small part of that transformation must be the introduction of a universal aŭiliary language. It's time for action.

Shoghi Effendi said in 1936, "Unification of the whole of mankind is the hall-mark of the stage which humanity is now approaching... Nation building has come to an end. The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving toward a climax. A world growing to maturity must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and the wholeness of human relationships and establish, once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life."[10]

A universal aŭiliary language is a basic and important part of that machinery. Educating our fellow countrymen about the importance of its establishment and the importance of the U.N. generally would be one very practical way of combating the rampant nationalism which afflicts this country.


Janet Bixby became interested in linguistics when she majored in English and has studied it ever since. Her M.Ed. in counseling served to increase her interest in and understanding of communication. She has been a Baha'i for over 40 years and an Esperantist for 20. She served as President of the Chicago Esperanto Society for 6 years and was President of the Baha'i Esperanto League. As such she has worked persistently, not only for the use of this language, but, more importantly for the goal which inspired its creator, namely, the establishment of a universal aŭiliary language.

[1] (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha-u-llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 165-167).

[2] ('Abdu'l-Baha, "Star of the West, Vol. 11, No. 17, p. 287-291).

[3] ('Abdu'l-Baha, "La Nova Tago, Vol. 6, No. 2).

[4] ('Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 2nd Ed. 1982, p. 60).

[5] ('Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation, p. 60).

[6] (Baha'i International Community, Turning Point for All Nations, p.9-10).

[7] (Baha'i International Community, Turning Point, p. 4).

[8] (Baha'i International Community, Turning Point, p. 13).

[9] (The Universal House of Justice, "The Promise of World Peace", p. 23).

[10] (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 202).