Various comments on Baha'i auxlang policy (long)

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Posted by Dawud (wants to be on the future world government's language committee!) ( on February 07, 2002 at 22:34:45:

In Reply to: Universal Language - "Pay it Forward" posted by Brett Zamir on February 04, 2002 at 21:15:06:

First of all, a disclaimer: I speak Esperanto and believe that it is good, though I am not hell-bent on making the world learn to speak it with me. The Esperanto community is truly international idealistic brotherhood, like the Baha'is, and this aspect must be what Abdul-Baha had in mind when he recommended it (not necessarily as the future auxlang, just to some inquirers as an activity). Another disclaimer: I am *not* a Baha'i, though I think the Baha'i religion, like Esperanto, is generally a good thing.

Okay, the three main auxlang choices are

(1) natural languages,
(2) constructed languages, or
(3) simplified/otherwise modified natural languages (blurs with #2).

Paradigmatic examples would be (respectively) English, Esperanto, and Basic English. Here's a run-down on their shortcomings.

(1) Natural languages: The major ones mostly require more effort to learn well (and we don't want to handicap anybody's career by hampering their ability to speak alongside natives as equals, do we?), than can reasonably be expected from any but the linguistically talented. The least bad choices in this respect might be Spanish, Hindi (or better, Nepali), or Bahasa Indonesian (itself arguably artificial). This approach would give us an elite class of interpreters from one language group (say, English-speakers), a neverending struggle for students to learn overly difficult languages (say, in jukus or buxibans), or new tolerance for "errors" leading to things like Indian English, pidgins, and thus ultimately #3, below.

(2) Constructed languages: They can be easy. They can reform human thought. They probably can't do too much of both at once. (Loglan and Logjam are very, very logical and very, very hard for ordinary humans to fathom.)

So far Esperanto, for all its problems, is far and away the most successful example of a conlang used primarily for international communication, and absolutely *must* be studied (i.e., learned) by anyone seriously interested in this issue. (Other successful conlangs aimed at something other than being an auxlang include various signing systems for the deaf, or Modern Hebrew.) It has had millions of users in the past, and presently boasts a fluent population of (I guess) a few hundred thousand, with maybe twice that many with lesser exposure. Note that all the other would-be aux-conlangs are in triple-digits or below.

One thing the experience with Esperanto especially teaches us is the importance of the speech community. Any fool can invent his own language; only a very talented fool can get enough people to speak it so that it takes on a life of its own (as living languages must). At the same time, demographically Esperanto (like many fraternal orders, churches, and European countries) is rapidly aging and can be expected to dwindle into even greater obscurity than it enjoys at present. Meanwhile even extremely minor natural languages have more numerous populations than Esperanto--so does this mean that Mordvin (with 5 m speakers) is closer than we are to being the world language?

Here is where the Baha'is could make themselves extremely useful. The Baha'is have several million of followers, many of whom could be expected to take up the study of whatever language their leadership might urge on them. It is therefore in your power to bring unprecedented new life into the con-auxlang movement, whether your authorities chose to back Esperanto or create an entirely new conlang. The political effects would likely be far-reaching, as a glance at the histories of Volapuk in the 19th-century and Esperanto in the 20-th would show. Not only would such a language be shown to be enormously practical for communication (more so, in fact, than English or Persian!), but--on analogy with Esperanto--the transnational human bonds it would encourage would be profound.

(3) Simplified languages. Joseph Sheppherd, the Baha'i anthropologist, anticipates this approach in his social-science fiction novel "The Island of the Same Name" when he has English become the auxlang, but with phonetic spelling. No doubt many other revisions to English would be desirable in order to encourage ease of study. Many English speakers would persist on viewing such revisions with distaste (like Orwell), and natives would still have a certain unfair learning advantage (just as speakers of Romance languages have an advantage in learning Esperanto).

So, what's it to be? As I understand it the Baha'is are leaving it to the future world government to pick a committee to decide auxlang policy. This image does not strike me as terribly likely (though neither, I concede, is any auxlang proposal), since for such ideas to ever become politically mentionable a likely candidate (complete with speech community) must have already become dominant, so what work would there be for the committee to do? But Baha'is could still be very useful to the auxlang discussion, while reaping intangible benefits for their own transnational solidarity, as I mentioned, without prejudicing future auxlang policy. Right now Baha'is use English and Persian as official "working languages" for international communication with each other. On a similar basis, Baha'i authorities might encourage the study of Esperanto, or Swahili, or what have you, and we would learn much from the results, whatever they were.

For the record, I would advise a new constructed language. Where Esperanto draws its vocabulary from various European languages, I would suggest a wider base--but not at the expense of making the language more difficult. For example, this principle probabl means that we should look first to Indo-European roots, and also to widespread Semitic roots. (Wouldn't Baha'is rather say "kitab" or something instead of "libro"? etc.) Chinese speakers should immediately understand why--due to the special nature of their language, and despite its huge number of speakers--only a few well-known sinicisms would deserve adoption on their own merits. Other details: Isolating, not agglutinative. Based on strict word order, not with cases. No conjugation, declension, or adj/adv agreement.

But--whatever you come up with, test-drive it first with groups of volunteers. Work out the kinks. Once a speech community exists, you'll never reform anything, you'll just keep acquiring new bad habits!

Oh yes--and no matter what language is adopted, for enormously practical reasons it should come with a script based on the Roman alphabet, and be strictly phonetic, with no screwy spelling.

One last note, that could radically change the whole discussion: Within a decade, we will very likely enjoy cheap and effective machine translation from any major language to any other. This would mean that just as we no longer need to learn math but can resort to a calculator, so can our descendents avoid any language learning whatsoever should they turn out to be as lazy as we are. Should the Baha'is then declare victory, and the Esperantists concede that our language no longer has a purpose, since there would no longer be a language problem more serious than poetry appreciation?

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