The legend of The Tower of Babel — one of the great mythical tales from sacred texts, epic poetry and the traditions of many different civilizations – describes a time when one human language became many.

In Western traditions this story of the confounding and diversity of languages comes originally from the Book of Genesis in the Torah, the Old Testament of the Bible. But you can find similar stories of the confusion and multiplication of human language in the Qur’an, in the ancient Greek myth of Hermes, in the Sumerian epic called Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata, and in multiple tribal cultures like the Maidu Indians of California, the Tlingit of Alaska, the Wasania tribe in Kenya and the K’iche’ Maya in Guatemala. The word Babel means “The Gate of God” in Akkadian, the oldest and now-extinct Semitic language. The ancient city-state of Babylon (about 85 kilometers south of Baghdad in Iraq) took its name from the Tower of Babel, where many accounts say the tower was actually constructed.

The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel

This universal story of the Tower of Babel tells the tale of the beginnings of cultural differences among humanity, the origin of our multiplicity of languages. Today, the earth’s people speak somewhere between 6,000-7,000 living languages, making worldwide communication difficult at best, and marginalizing those who do not speak one of the more common languages. The seven most common – English, Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, French, Spanish and Russian – account for the majority of the native speakers from the world’s population; but those dominant languages, from the world’s economically-dominant societies, are increasingly crowding out minority languages and threatening their survival.

Baha’i believe we can solve that problem by adopting an internationally-accepted auxiliary language:

In order to facilitate complete understanding between all people, a universal auxiliary language will be adopted and in the schools of the future two languages will be taught — the mother tongue and this international auxiliary tongue which will be either one of the existing languages or a new language made up of words from all the languages — the matter is to be determined by a confederation met for the purpose which shall represent all tribes and nations. This international tongue will be used in the work of the parliament of man — a supreme tribunal of the world which will be permanently established in order to arbitrate international questions. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 84.

An international auxiliary language (now known as an auxlang or an IAL), would remove the misunderstandings and communication problems humanity has suffered with for centuries. One auxlang would create solidarity and clarity; encourage the acquisition of scientific knowledge across all cultures regardless of their level of development; make universal education a reality; bring about increased commerce and exchange between nations; break down the barriers between religions, cultures and social groups; and contribute mightily to the peace of the world.

And the adoption of one universal auxiliary language would solve the problem of language endangerment and extinction, which harms the cultural diversity of the world.

Abdu’l-Baha encouraged the adoption of a universal language, saying that it would help create the conditions for world unity:

A mutual language will become the mightiest means toward universal progress, for it will cement the east and the west. It will make the world one home and become the divine impulse for human advancement. It will upraise the standard of oneness of the world of humanity and make the earth a universal commonwealth. It will create love between the children of men and good fellowship between the various creeds. – Divine Philosophy, p. 142.

Baha’is around the world have advocated for this important principle, and increasingly its usefulness is being recognized. Some experts believe that a universal language will gradually emerge naturally, while others think the nations and tribal groups of the world should forge an international consensus. The Baha’i writings recommend the latter course:

An international Congress should be formed, consisting of delegates from every nation in the world, Eastern as well as Western. This Congress should form a language that could be acquired by all, and every country would thereby reap great benefit.

Until such a language is in use, the world will continue to feel the vast need of this means of intercourse. Difference of speech is one of the most fruitful causes of dislike and distrust that exists between nations, which are kept apart by their inability to understand each other’s language more than by any other reason.

If everybody could speak one language, how much more easy would it be to serve humanity! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 155.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

12 Comments

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  • Mark David Vinzens
    Jun 27, 2017
    "Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict." (The Arrival)
  • Jan 13, 2015
    Hi David
    Saluton John
    If it's possible to comment at this late date in relation to a 15 month old posting then this remarkable site is even better than I've often opined here already over the last few months
    Given that Dr. Zamenhof's language of peace (Esperanto) has been repeatedly and emphatically praised by the Master, the Guardian and by the Universal House of Justice and even by Baha'u'llah too in 1891 on one take from the "Epistle to the Son of the Wolf", John i m o quite correctly updates David's stats and wisely questions the possibly unintentional overlooking ...of Esperanto on David's part in his otherwise typically brilliant BT-article titled 'A Universal Language'..
    In my own droll way deploying Socratic irony, given Esperanto's low profile, I respond to Esperanto-skeptics and naysayers by joking: “Yes, Esperanto? Is it a French or Spanish operetta set in Utopia?” In other words, let’s never argue acrimoniously whether privately in small groups or in large public meetings. But, for God’s sake, academe, let’s talk and walk this issue through and thoroughly investigate the truth for the layperson’s sake and “for righteousness sake”! (Matthew 5:10)
    Baha'i love
    Paul
    Read more...
  • Jan 12, 2015
    Dear David,
    I feel your article on the Baha’i teachings on a universal language (http://bahaiteachings.org/bahai-principles-a-universal-language) could be improved.
    First, your statistics could be improved and are currently possibly misleading. Statistics about the numbers of people speaking various languages are of necessity only best guesses and vary on the basis of differing professional judgments as to what constitutes a language. Nevertheless, according to Ethnologue.com and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers), the top seven languages in terms of native speakers, in order of percentage of world population, are:
    Mandarin (14.4%),
    Spanish (6.15%),
    English (5.43%),
    Hindi (4.70%),
    Arabic (4.43),
    Portuguese ...(3.27%), and
    Bengali (3.11%)
    Thus Russian is not among the top seven, and the total percentage of the world population represented by the top seven languages is, in fact, less than a majority, namely, only 41.49%.
    To reach an actual majority of the world’s population a person would need to know, in addition, another six languages, namely:
    Russian (2.33%)
    Japanese (1.90%)
    Punjabi (1.44%)
    German (1.39%)
    Javanese (1.25%), and
    Wu (1.20%).
    Knowing these 13 top languages would in theory enable one to reach and understand 51.00 percent of humanity, a bare majority.
    According to http://www.vistawide.com/languages/top_30_languages.htm, the top 30 natively spoken languages on Earth include only roughly 60 percent of the world's population.
    The implication is that language diversity among human beings is really much more profound than the article suggests and that this problem really, truly, cannot be overcome by the mere learning of multiple national languages, as might be the implication if, as you article currently reads, a “majority” of humanity could be reached through only seven languages.
    Second, in fact, and as a result of humanity’s deep linguistic dispersion, an Esperanto-type solution is the only one that can in theory achieve communication with justice, namely, a relatively inclusive linguistic fairness and also a minimal and justly distributed global learning burden.
    However, for some reason that is not clear in an article about the Baha’i teachings on Universal Language, you deliberately choose to omit any reference to Esperanto and to 'Abdu'l-Baha's and Shoghi Effendi's repeated encouragements to Baha'is to learn Esperanto, to get it into schools, and to use it for the "divine benefits" that ‘Abdu’l-Baha said it can bestow.
    You also choose not to mention the creation by the Universal House of Justice in 1973 of the Baha'i Esperanto League.
    I think these need to be included.
    Do you omit them because think these parts of the Baha’i position and program are invalid in some way, or unrealistic in some worldly sense? The world language barrier is both a material and a spiritual problem. Are you among those who think that English has already solved it in both aspects and has dispelled the need for a spiritualizing component such as what Esperanto can add?
    For Esperanto can synergize and accelerate the learning of English and other languages, can mitigate the “baggage” associated with them, and can also directly remind us of our second-order spiritual nature as ethically and morally self-improving, self-transcending creatures. Nor is it the case that Esperanto has "died out" and thus deserves no mention. It is in fact among the roughly top 30 languages of Wikipedia and is credited with a following of roughly 1 to 2 million around the world, putting it in the same league as the Baha'i Faith itself and numerically among the top 300 to 400 languages on Earth out of what Ethnologue.com now counts as 7100.
    Third, your article could be improved in that it presents the Baha'i position as consisting only of support for government actions based on some international commission. You give, as part of the Baha’i position, no active role to the peoples of the world in terms of their own actual experimentation and experience with a language such as Esperanto that would constitute a foundation for governments or experts to think about and act on. This is seriously not the case. Both Zamenhof, the initiator of Esperanto, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha saw Esperanto as simply the beginning of an evolving global citizen initiative and as part of the “end of foreignness.” Neither ever said, “Do nothing; wait for governments to act.”
    In actual fact, the major national governments on Earth, driven as we all know by the psychopathology of alpha-male competition for power, have shown almost no interest at all in choosing an easy and relatively neutral language for the solidarity and benefit of the common peoples of the world, the so-called 99 Percent. The topic has never come up in the UN General Assembly, and this despite massive international citizen petitions in the 1950s and 1960s to put it on the agenda.
    In conclusion, if the Baha'i position on a universal language were really as it comes across here, namely, for we the peoples to sit back in our comfy chairs and wait for governments to act on our behalf, then I would have to reject it as one of inaction and of failure to solve the problem.
    But popular inaction is not the solution and is not the Baha’i position, which is one of urgent concern and action by every soul.
    As a Baha'i Esperantist I make an active use of Esperanto for the benefits and for the sense of community that I can achieve through it right now, as 'Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi told us to.
    As good as government action would be, I do not need to wait for governments in order to achieve my own immediate personal benefits through Esperanto, and neither does anyone else.
    If everyone simply acted for the immediate “divine benefits” that ‘Abdu’l-Baha said Esperanto would bestow, those people be a lamp unto others, and humanity would gain illumination and begin to move rapidly and holistically toward its true linguistic destiny.
    Revising your article to make these points more evident would be in the interests of all your readers.
    Warmly yours,
    John Dale
    Milwaukie, Oregon
    Bahai_Esperanto_Youth_Projects@yahoo.com
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    • Andy Nousen
      Oct 03, 2016
      Eble vi proponu tian skribaĵon?
      Actualy, I think you just provided such an article. Thank you!
  • Susan Gammage
    Oct 19, 2013
    A lot of people think the world has adopted English as the universal language, but this can only be a temporary measure, for 'Abdu'l-Baha tells us:
    It will be governed by the simplest rules, and there will be no exceptions, neither will there be gender, nor extra and silent letters. Everything indicated will have but one name. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 94)
    English clearly doesn't meet this standard!
    • Eric Michell
      Dec 01, 2013
      Doesn't esperanto fill those conditions?
      • Susan Gammage
        Dec 01, 2013
        Arabic is also another possibility . . .
        In one of His Tablets revealed in ‘Akká, Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes the
        importance of adopting the auxiliary international language ordained in
        the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. He states that its implementation will provide a
        means for safeguarding the unity of the human race and will facilitate
        intercourse and understanding among the peoples of the world. In this
        Tablet Bahá’u’lláh praises the Arabic language for its expressiveness
        and eloquence, and remarks that no other language can match its vast
        possibilities. He further states that God would be pleased if ...all the
        peoples of the world were to speak the Arabic language. But He does not
        require humanity necessarily to adopt it as the international language;
        rather He leaves the choice to the appropriate institutions.
        (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh v 4, p. 159-160)
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      • Susan Gammage
        Dec 01, 2013
        Close Eric, but not all the way! 'Abdu'l-Baha had this to say about Esperanto:
        Praise be to God, that Dr. Zamenhof has constructed the Esperanto
        language. It has all the potential qualities of universal adoption. All
        of us must be grateful and thankful to him for his noble effort, for in
        this matter he has served his fellow-man well. He has done a service
        which will bestow divine benefits on all peoples. With untiring effort
        and self-sacrifice on the part of its devotees it holds a promise of
        universal acceptance. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Divine ...Philosophy, p. 145-146)
        And this to say about the universal language:
        … no one person can construct a universal language. It must be made by a
        council representing all countries and must contain words from
        different languages. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 94)
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        • Ŝarjíl Niŝáṭ
          Mar 13, 2014
          Thanks Susan for sharing this quote of `Abdu'l-Baha' on the requirements of the future Universal Language. From the top 10 most spoken languages, with the largest native speaking populations, Bengali meets all the criteria. Bengali also happens to be my mother tongue ;). Its grammar is simple, and has words from many languages as the Bengal region was settled by many invaders, colonizers, and other foreign settlers. And the Bengali peoples are genetically heterogenous. Bengali lacks grammatical gender as there's only one word for third person singular, and the verb tenses don't agree with gender ...either (unlike Hindi). Bengali is also the only language that had a language rights movement, and many were martyred on 21 February 1952 as a result of Bengalis of then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) standing up for their language rights. Hence, 21 February was declared by the UN as the International Mother Language Day :D.
          You're right that English doesn't fulfil the requirements. Also, Esperanto and Arabic don't meet them either. The only criteria on which Bengali needs a lot of work is its phonetics and phonology as there are too many discrepancies. That's what I've been working on in the last few years. I'm on the last stage of making a few minor fixes, and copyrighting my script :).
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        • Nicholas James Bridgewater
          Jan 05, 2014
          The quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha in London is not authoritative as the translators of 'Abdu'l-Baha's speeches were not always accurate. It would also contradict the quote directly above it which you have cited, stating Esperanto as a possible universal language. Esperanto was started by one person but greatly expanded by all of its users, including those today. It continues to evolve just like any other living language. Best wishes.
        • Eric Michell
          Dec 01, 2013
          Thank you very much Susan for the writings related to that subject :-) I will ask some of my Muslum friends and co-workers about the arabic language. I wonder if there is any genders in Arabic. I suspect not though. Yeah I guess English is only a transitory languages because it is being trasmitted mainly because of business relationships.
          Thank you :-)
          • Nicholas James Bridgewater
            Jan 05, 2014
            The Baha'i writings speak of two stages: the first is the international auxiliary language, which will be selected by the world government. This is the one referred to by 'Abdu'l-Baha above. The second stage is the adoption of the world language, which will become the mother tongue of the entire world. This will be selected by the Universal House of Justice. So there are two distinct stages in this process. Baha'u'llah stated that His preference was for all the world to speak Arabic. It is unlikely, however, that Arabic would ever be selected as an international auxiliary language, because it ...is quite complex and pertains to one part of the world at the present time. The auxiliary language will no doubt be much simpler, like Esperanto. However, as it is Baha'u'llah's own preference, it might be selected as the world language later on, becoming the mother tongue of all mankind. Arabic not only has genders but also a dual form. So there are five words for you, anta (you singular masculine), anti (you singular feminine), antumaa (you dual), antunna (you plural feminine) and antum (you plural masculine) for example.
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