Monday, December 29, 2008

Universal Language, Part II

The Analysis in the Panorthosia of the Problems that a Universal Language Would Address
By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 29, 18 Masa'il 165 BE
Yesterday we ended our opening discussion of universal language in the Panorthosia with a nod to Baha'u'llah's paragraph on this subject in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. He also points out here that agreeing to a single language for all human beings would assure the security and permanence of any future world order. "This will be the cause of unity, could ye but comprehend it, and the greatest instrument for promoting harmony and civilization, would that ye might understand!" (Aqdas, p. 88) Comenius, who today is recognized as one of the most influential innovators in the methodology of language instruction in the history of education, concurs with this judgment.
"By this procedure we shall be surprised how soon we shall see the fulfilment of God's promise that Language shall be changed among the people, and it shall be pure, and all men shall call upon the name of Jehovah and serve him with one consent (Zeph. III, 9). For just as we see today that anyone making an exhaustive study of the language of a particular nation assimilates and begins to imitate not only the phrases, idioms, and proverbs of the people but also their customs and temperaments (as it gives expression to their general characteristics), so mankind, if provided with a language that is wholly founded upon reason, cannot fail to derive from it reasonable ideas, thoughts, desires, and policies." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 18, p. 214)
Comenius points out that the language barrier leaves most of the human race in utter ignorance, without access to books or even the languages in which they are written. Worse, even when there are enough books, there is little inclination to take advantage of them.
"... some people, even whole nations, have no books or never read them, and do not care to train any living men as leaders of wisdom, but only live a sensual life like beasts of the field. Unless such barbarism is stopped, the reform of human affairs will be impossible, and the world will remain for ever as it is at present, beastly, insensate, irrational, groping in darkness, stumbling at every step, and dashing headlong into various pitfalls." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 7, p. 146)
Again, Abdu'l-Baha's Secret of Divine Civilization agrees with this, that only a planned program of active reform based not on some theory but initiatives by enlightened individuals, combined with the implementation of a common language, can ever succeed in establishing real progress and development, as opposed to blind growth and destructive expansion.
One of the most hopeful developments of the past decade are the spread of the Internet and the new encyclopedists writing the Wikipedia, which is being written in hundreds of languages at the same time. Another leapfrog over the language barrier is the "laptop for every child" initiative of Nicholas Negroponte. As Negroponte points out, the laptop computers his group are distributing in poor, isolated villages are not just computers but include entire libraries with far more books than we had access to, even in the best schools of the developed world.
I was watching Negroponte on the TED website videos explaining the charity's offer of "two for one," buy one of these specially designed kids' laptops and another is purchased for a poor village child in a deprived region. My nine-year-old son happened to be watching and became so enthusiastic with the possibilities of this green computer that now he wants one for his birthday present next summer. I have no objections to that, of course.
We think of the discourse of rights and freedom as characteristically modern. For that reason it is startling to find it in full flower in Comenius, thanks largely to the insights gained by close study of the Bible. He points out that the diversity of languages is not like the good diversity of flowers in a variegated garden, but it is rather the result of the old divide and conquer technique of the slave master and oppressor.
"The time of general restoration is approaching; everything must be restored to liberty. Therefore since God is on the point of removing the yoke of slavery inflicted on the world by the men of Nimrod, it is time also for the removal of languages forced upon the people against their will, as these are but symbols of slavery. And when the doorway to full liberty is opened to all mankind, we should at the same time open up the most obvious doorway to universal intercourse, the common language that shall be reasonable, harmonious, thoroughly pleasant, fluent and clear. For once this is established and generally adopted, the whole human race will be able to find a happy solution in its innumerable problems." (Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 10, p. 210)
It is moving to recall that this was written by a man whose Slavic roots gave us the very word "slave." The Romans had enslaved the Slavs for centuries longer than Africans were enslaved in the Americas. Plus, it is sobering to remember that there are more de facto slaves today, due to endemic extreme poverty caused largely by the linguistic divide, than there ever were in past centuries. The inauguration of a universal language, backed by a single world-embracing media, would end slavery of all kinds, chattel, industrial and financial.
The ill effects of a multiplicity of languages are not restricted to the indigent majority of mankind. They extend to the linguistic elites as well. A spirit of partisan disputation is endemic in the insular cultures of England and America, the inheritors of English, the de facto, unofficial world language. Proof of this is the complete lack of consensus about how to go about responding to climate change, in spite of having more and better endowed universities now, united by a single language, than at any time in history. One might expect that we would be unaffected by the multiple solitudes of the modern Babel, but such is not the case. This parlous condition too was foretold by the genius of Comenius, who wrote,
"... since the fall of mighty Babylon was foretold at the end of the ages (Revelation XIV, 8), we must put a stop to every form of confusion no matter where it originated. Moreover, the multiplicity of languages was not only one of the main causes of our confusion, but a universal handicap which was especially responsible for our failure to reach agreement with our minds and senses. For otherwise the instruments of the senses, such as the process of reasoning, had by the grace of God remained unaffected; but so long as we could not pass information about the same things in the same way, there were well-nigh constant misunderstandings. This occurred not only where languages sounded very different, but also in cases where men used the same language, owing to mistakes, obscurities, and endless ambiguities, which have been notorious for causing almost continuous verbal warfare even among scholars. Therefore all Babylon must be destroyed through God's mercy to us." (Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 14, p. 212)
The modern word for "Babylon," of course, is "the West." While Western academics engage in "continuous verbal warfare" with one another, insistent environmental alarms ring around the world. None are being answered because of a legacy of ignoring the language barrier, the worst structural injustice on the face of the planet. Our lack of an official world language taught to every child in every classroom creates terrible habits on the part of thinkers in the English-speaking world. Because English is an unplanned language, we imagine that our hegemony proves that the world is best off without a single vision or energetic initiatives for unification.
Long established habits of criminal neglect and intellectual laziness reduce willingness to sacrifice for the general good and encourage a complacent preoccupation with unfettered capitalism, a Laissez faire "hands-off" approach to reform, and animal-like liberty. These are all little more than sad excuses for malingering, glorying in the ascendency of English while neglecting the planet's imperative need for planned, comprehensive solutions. Just as having many rival nations is extremely profitable for a small number of weapons manufacturers, having many rival languages competing with one another benefits a few translators and media moguls while endangering the whole human race.
In the meantime, as in the time of Comenius, there is little more to be done than pray that somebody will arise and take the language problem on directly. Let me close with Comenius's crucial point in the Panorthosia that we have no choice but to regard a world language as a basic human right that cannot be denied.
"It is a well-known fact in Church history that mankind has been handicapped by the diversity of languages, and the difficulty of learning even two or three of these must be regarded as clear evidence of God's vengeance.
Surely, therefore, since God is granting other forms of reconciliation we shall also seek this further favour from Him through prayer and in every possible way, so that we are restored universally to the full, free, and rightful use of a universal language, and even as we are all accorded equal rights as citizens of one world-wide fatherland so we all enjoy mutual understanding also, with the prospect that true unity of language will lead to true unity of purpose.
And so the promise of God will clearly be fulfilled:- 'They shall all know me, from the least of them even unto the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity,' etc. (Jeremiah XXXI, 34).
(Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 11, p. 211)

John Taylor


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Concerning a Universal Language, can I but in a word for Esperanto? Professor Piron was a translator for the United Nations in Geneva.
A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at