The Baha’i Answer to Babel

by Sara Mich:

The slabs of white marble, which offer a cool respite for pilgrims’ feet during the night, begin to throb with warmth under the midmorning heat as the Israeli city of Haifa comes alive. The octagonal dome of the Shrine of the Bab stands like a white silhouette against the skyline, while 70 volunteers from around the world tend the gardens below. Since the Baha’i Faith first emerged in 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, followers have been flocking to this holy site, inspired by a call for social, moral, and spiritual progress on a global level. Based largely on tenets of universal acceptance and communication, the Faith has become one of the world’s most geographically widespread religions, with seven million adherents representing over 2,100 tribal, racial, and ethnic groups. This has only heightened the desire of the Faith’s followers for an international auxiliary language, a common second language to unite Baha’is of all different tongues.

Pilgrims at the Baha'i temple in Haifa, Israel, come from all over the world. Some Baha'is believe that they could one day worship in the same language (Flickr).

“Esperanto is well-equipped to fill that role,” said Bernhard Westerhoff, a German Baha’i and secretary of the Baha’i Esperanto League (BEL), referring to a language developed in 1887 by Polish philosopher dr. L. L. Zamenhof. Zamenhof’s goal was to create a universal language, constructed from Romance, Indo-European, and Slavic roots, that would foster worldwide communication—a principle remarkably similar to that of the Baha’i Faith.

Indeed, for over 40 years, the 400-member strong BEL has worked to promote this connection, publishing Baha’i information in Esperanto and advocating its use as the religion’s auxiliary language. While the Universal House of Justice, the highest Baha’i governing body, remains largely silent regarding Esperanto, the language continues to exert a widespread influence; at the Baha’i World Conference in 1986, over half of the delegates were learning or already conversant in Esperanto.

Humphrey Tonkin, professor emeritus at the University of Hartford and former president of the World Esperanto Association, said the language has only expanded further. “Interest in Esperanto has continued to grow,” he said, “especially given the way technology has facilitated international communication of Esperantist ideas.”

Yet while the parallels between Esperanto and the Baha’i Faith are numerous, some linguists doubt the viability of Esperanto as the religion’s lingua franca. Esperanto, they claim, lacks the underlying structure inherent in a natural language. Tonkin disagrees. “Esperanto is in many respects very similar to other languages,” he said. “People have been speaking it for over a century, and it has had the chance to evolve and develop internal consistency in that process.”

Stephen Anderson, professor of linguistics at Yale University, raises additional doubts about Esperanto. “Even if everyone began to speak Esperanto exclusively…within a few generations there would be clearly distinguishable dialects, some mutually incomprehensible,” he warned. Tonkin dismisses this danger, however, arguing instead that languages “converge to the extent that people who speak them wish them to converge, and diverge to the extent that people are isolated.” So while the Baha’i Faith lacks the geographic proximity that would facilitate linguistic convergence, its firm philosophical foundations could counter divergent tendencies.

Thus, the Baha’i quest for a universal auxiliary language continues, and the community weighs various options—English, as the primary language of media and commerce, is frequently proposed. Only Baha’i world leaders have the power to officially adopt an auxiliary language, however, and given the massive changes required in instituting Esperanto or any language, they seem unlikely to do so soon.

Regardless, these linguistic and cultural hurdles suggest a view of language—inherent in the arguments of Baha’is, linguists, and Esperantists alike—as more than just a means for communication. Instead, as Tonkin argues, language is an “institution,” tied to cultural traditions and values—a system that its members adhere to, contribute to, and use in turn. A language’s ability to fill this role dictates its success, and actively changing something so deeply engrained constitutes an immense undertaking. The Baha’is have carried their message worldwide without a universal language, and their emphasis on unity and communication has still rung true. While Baha’i Esperantists attempt to integrate this new “institution” into their faith, their challenges reveal the significance of language as a cultural phenomenon— developed over hundreds of years of history and embodying the ideals that shape the future of its adherents.

Sara Mich is a sophomore Religious Studies and History double major in Saybrook College.