Language Litmus: Indications of Social Change from Developments in Language

The growth and development of a language through time has much to teach us, particularly as Baha’is, about the current linguistic mindset of the speakers of the world’s many languages and how that may help or hinder each linguistic group understand, accept and implement Baha’i principles.

While there are currently approximately seven thousand languages in the world two distinct types emerged. One group being languages that remained an oral phenomenon with no script and hence literature. In the other group its speakers created a script and became literate, presumably around the same time they stopped being hunter- gatherers and settled in one place quite quickly adding trade to farming.

Currently the world’s most widely spoken languages are as follows:

Mandarin         12.44%

Spanish            4.85%

English            4.83%

Arabic             3.25%

Hindi               2.68%

Bengali            2.66%

Portuguese      2.62%

Russian            2.12%

Japanese          1.80%

German           1.33%

Javanese          1.25%

This list indicates several aspects about the world’s languages. Some of these languages are not spoken widely around the world but are in countries or regions with very large populations. Thus Mandarin, Hindi, Bengali, Japanese, German and Javanese are spoken in countries with large populations but are not spoken over a large geographical area. Only two countries count Mandarin as an official language, China and Taiwan and China also has Cantonese as an official language while five and a half million Mandarin speakers live in Singapore. Some languages however, due to various historical circumstances, particularly colonisation, are spread over large parts of the globe. Thus, Spanish, Arabic and English have become the official languages in many countries in the world outside of Arabia (25 states all of which are in the Middle east and North Africa,), Spain (21 states all of which, outside Spain are in Central and South America and the Caribbean) and England (60 sovereign and 28 non sovereign states in every continent across all time zones, leading to the expression, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’.). French is the official language in 29 states but does not make the top ten list of languages because most of the states have small populations and in many of them , while it is the official language, a significant percentage of the population do not speak French. A third aspect of this list is that if the lower countries on the list have just over one percent of the world’s speakers then most languages below that must have, on a worldwide scale, a relatively small number of speakers. What the list does not convey is which of these languages are popular second languages, spoken well by a significant number of people. It is likely that across the world English is one of the most widespread second languages and although French does not appear on the list of mother tongues above it, too, is a popular second language while Russian was obviously popular across the communist world, but now significantly losing its influence after the break up of the Soviet Union. The list above demonstrates that while English is the main language in by far the most number of countries still three times more individuals speak Mandarin. The number of efficient English speakers as second language takes the English speaking world way beyond every other language but is still significantly less than the physical number of Mandarin speakers. However, ultimately numbers may be much less important than influence. In other words the vast majority of Mandarin speakers can have little or no influence on the current development of an increasingly global society while large numbers of people of influence, making a difference, if they are not native English speakers assume a good command of English will aid their contribution to government, enterprise and innovation.

The Internet tells a different story about the numerical spread the world’s various languages.  In the first instance around fifty percent of all websites on the web are in English while the other big languages have a very small percentage. It may be there are more English websites than the rest of the world put together. There are various possible reasons for this. One is that the Internet developed with English speaking inventors and entrepreneurs so they had a head start coupled with the already widespread number of speakers as first and second language. Secondly, English speaking providers experienced a creative freedom not encouraged as much in all other language groups. Thirdly, the other big language groups such as Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and Hindi have large rural and poor populations who do not yet have the literacy, wealth or motive to surf the web. However, another phenomenon is the rate of growth of new websites, particularly in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian compared to the rate of growth of English websites. Thus, while there are currently ten times more English websites than each of these language groups they are now increasing at ten times the rate of English language websites reflecting the growing wealth, access and some freedoms in these linguistic cultures. To demonstrate the link between web based language and the wider world, once again while French does not make the top ten worldwide languages it is high on the list of numbers of websites.

The use of languages on the Internet in the twenty first century tells us a little about the current cultural setting of the many languages. The domination of English on the web is linked to creativity, entrepreneurship, freedom, wealth and thirst for information. It may also be linked to a worldwide interest in English language based entertainment, particularly film, television, popular music and now computer games. The changes occurring in other languages’ presence on the web is indicative of those aspects growing within the culture of its speakers. The freedom and creativity within English speaking culture is linked to a successful rebellion over the last few centuries against a stultifying established church and largely feudal government and continual, trailblazing, scientific and technical advances starting at the beginning of the 18th century and continuing today.

Once groups formed settled societies, sustaining social cohesion needed rules and policing of those rules. The rules tended to be centred on belief systems, be they polytheistic or monotheistic, and managed by a priestly class who in turned endorsed kingship, itself seen as divinely ordained. In early times there were less widespread single languages and away from the main centres there would be a plethora of local languages and dialects. It was probably not possible for lore emanating from a center of civilization to be translated into many local languages as radiating away from the centers of civilization literacy would diminish. A tradition emerged of guidance, known, as scripture, to be recorded in a classical language of the region, a language no longer or never spoken in the street and home. Sanskrit, Latin and Classical Greek are examples of this phenomena. Latin, from a spoken language in Rome and its area, and an Indo-European language became the language of the Catholic Church which dominated Western Europe for many centuries. This was not as much of a challenge to speakers of Romance languages such as those spoken in much of Southern Europe because of their close roots with Latin. In Northern Europe where Germanic languages dominated Latin was less accessible and thus, over the centuries, in these areas a battle ensued whereby many desired to have the scripture translated into the vernacular languages and the established church resisted to the extent of ceaselessly persecuting and even killing those engaged in translation. Thus, within certain linguistic groups, a division grew between those groups acquiescent to the scripture being in a dead or classical language and those discontent with that.

A different occurrence was the Quran, which, composed in a living language of its region, Arabic, albeit in a highly poetic and classical style, led ultimately, through the colonising of its early adherents, to become the language of a widespread geographical area, replacing local languages. Thus, rather than having the scriptures translated into the vernacular, as in Northern Europe, it became the adopted language of its followers across the Middle East and North Africa. Interestingly resistant linguistic cultures to Arabic include Farsi, the language of Persia and Turkish, both of which survived Islam imposing Arabic on their populations possibly because of the richness of their own literary traditions prior to the coming of Islam.

Thus, it would seem scriptural guidance prior to the coming of The Quran, tended to be in non-vernacular languages and within some language groups this led eventually to tensions and in others less so. Hindu scripture in Sanskrit is a dead language but Hindu society had a powerful caste system wherein those in the higher castes were content with their position in society and those below had no opportunity to protest. Where tensions arose, as they did in Northern Europe, those wishing for change, often at risk of their lives, began to question much wider issues than just the power and exclusivity of priesthood centred around their relationship with scripture. Such challenging grew into questioning the social status quo and calling for more justice and equality.  Conversely, linguistic groups content with the status quo and experiencing less urgency to demand change, remained more socially static. Nevertheless, by the nineteenth century, the period of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation the vast majority of the world’s people’s still lived in basically feudalistic societies controlled by kings and priests where little had changed socially for centuries.

During the nineteenth century and still today, as evidenced by the Arab Spring and the atrocities taking place in it, the persecution of Baha’is in Iran and Egypt, the actions of the Taliban, in for example attempting to assassinate a school girl who championed education for girls and the general oppression prevalent in Muslim countries the mindset of its language groups would seem to be very different from the mindset of most of the speakers of western languages. This concerned George Townsend when Shoghi Effendi asked him to review his translation of ‘Dawn Breakers ‘, because he felt the brutal and violent history of the Babi Revelation would be off-putting to western readers. (George Townshend by David Hofman. p 65) However, he did go on to point out the foibles of the western mindset, in effect saying westerners lived an intrinsically lonely and mainly intellectual existence. However, despite the continual barrage in the western press about brutality and oppression in Islamic countries, most non-combatant travellers to the Middle East experience a level of warmth, hospitality and generosity unique in their life experience. On the other hand, despite its development of freedom and practised understanding of democracy, fairness and equality before the law, some western societies have enormous problems with mental illness, broken families and in the United States, for example, the significant social issue of the right to carry arms that stems from an original misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of the constitution but is now embroiled with issues of power and wealth creation. It is possible that while fingers are pointed eastward at suicide bombings and the like large numbers of people are dying unnecessarily from equally pointless gun attacks in the United States.

Thus, it would seem that each linguistic culture has a ‘worst’ and ‘best’ to offer. When Shoghi Effendi studied in Oxford he talked about ‘the best that this country has to offer’ and I can only assume he was talking about a sense of fair play, the work ethic, the freedom of speech and open debate, the truthfulness in dealings and the like that some people think is epitomised in the very British phenomenon of the neat, orderly and tranquil queue whenever required! (The Guardian of the Baha’i Faith by Ruhiyyih Khanum. p12) In the mid- twentieth century the western world took on a new interest and awareness of Hinduism and Buddhism and possibly the most influential watershed of this sudden explosion of interest was the visit John, Paul, George and Ringo made to Normal College, Bangor in North Wales to listen to the Maharishi Yogi in 1968 and George Harrison’s apprenticeship with Ravi Shankar. Millions across the world followed these events due to their celebrity adulation but millions more had their western curiosity roused and a significant upsurge of interest in Buddhism and Hinduism occurred which is sustained to this day. Now the opening up of the communist world, particularly China and Eastern bloc countries, will allow their ‘treasures’ to be revealed, shared and included in the worldwide debate about how to develop internationally what is now, effectively, an increasingly globalised society.

Returning to each individual language group, certain historical changes and developments took or are taking place that are in some respects a litmus paper to the developments  taking place in that particular cultural setting. Certain phenomena are shared by all language groups but not necessarily at the same time. After trade begat writing it soon occurred to societies to use writing for their moral code, government and the tradition of story telling. The moral code for literate societies is generally called religion and its recording called scripture. As already discussed two aspects of religion influenced, for example, the growth of literacy in any given culture. One aspect was the power and influence of the priest and the second aspect was the accessibility of the language of the scripture to the general populous. If the scripture was in a language accessible to large numbers of people then there was an obvious motive for universal literacy and such societies presumably made the first attempts at widespread literacy but only for the purpose of studying scripture. Other societies in which the scripture was less accessible to the general population because it was in a language alien to their own vernacular the priest, who made a point of studying the scriptural language, read and wrote on behalf of the general populace. In such societies it was deemed the only members of society in need of literacy were the rulers and priests as well as people like lawyers, doctors and merchants, who through their occupations, sustained social living. The English experience was that while Christianity arrived in England around 300 AD it was another 1600 years before universal literacy was mooted seriously and many believe the motive for the 1870 education act that introduced schooling for all, was partly due to the political storm surrounding the emaciation and lack of education of army recruits for a war that was being waged. Henry VIII’s break away from Catholicism and, hence, Latin, did not herald a move towards educating all classes so that each could appreciate the scriptures, now freely available in English. The probable reason is that the Anglican priesthood, emulating their Catholic forebears, sustained the traditional belief that priests were the interface between the common man and God. From the end of the 18th century and through the 19th  century, up to the eventual 1870 act, many reformers who had broken away from the established church attempted to make schooling, and hence literacy, more widespread.

In English, and this is most likely reflected in other languages, early literature that was not connected to religion or government was inspired by folk tales and sometimes a poetic rendition of those tales. A developmental stage in any language is when writers begin to create their own stories. The acknowledged father of this occurrence in English is Geoffrey Chaucer, a prolific creator of stories, albeit centred on religious themes, as was the requirement of his time, in the same way that artists were obliged to paint religious scenes. All literature in that culture at that time was hand printed with a small potential audience due to limited schooling and within those schooled, limited motivation to develop intellectually. At this time, and throughout the history of literature, among original creative writing, poems were more easily disseminated because of their brevity. In a similar fashion, at its heyday, the gramophone industry pressed and released songs as ‘singles’ as it was cheaper for the customers and allowed them to pick and choose which songs of any given artist they collected. Eventually the technology made it easier for the industry to sell music in albums and this became the norm. Similarly the invention of the printing press made producing books infinitely quicker, easier and cheaper than previously and led to an exponential interest in acquiring them wherever the printing press was established. Interestingly, while the printing press in Europe gave vernacular supporters an excuse to push for literature in local languages it also enhanced scholarship which could be disseminated across Europe in Latin, acting as an ‘international’ language, enabling scholars to share their work. Ironically, then, a world changing invention, placing Europe on the cusp of modernisation, reinvigorated a ‘dead’ language in order to take scholarship forward. Even with the printing press it would be sometime before books were affordable and a cheaper and quicker way to experience story telling was the theatre, as had been the case in ancient times, evidenced in Greek and Roman civilisation, for example. What is most significant in the existence of drama within a language is when drama became a vehicle for satire and questioning the status quo. The reverse of this happened when Shakespeare, possibly the wold’s most well known dramatist, rewrote historical events pertaining to royalty in order not to offend the monarch of his day.  Thus, a test of social and political change in a linguistic society is when drama is permitted to subtly or blatantly satire the status quo.

A manifestation of acknowledgement within a linguistic group of the importance of its literature is the creation and development of libraries. Once established, libraries, beyond storing carefully the language’s precious and in the early days, rare, copies of its writings, became a venue for scholars to study and meet and, thus, libraries stimulated research and dissemination of new knowledge and ideas. The earliest libraries stored clay tablets but it is likely that storage was their main function. From the library of Alexandria onwards most great ‘civilisations’ had their libraries, many of which were destroyed by less civilised invading hordes. The existence of these libraries, while usually accessible to very few people, indicated that the powers that be in those societies had an appreciation of literature of all kinds, its preservation and its availability for scholarship. Possibly a more telling development of the library is the ‘lending library’ that began to appear in the English speaking world, particularly in North America and Australia during the early nineteenth century. In 1850 in Britain the government legislated for the provision of lending libraries. By the early twentieth century lending libraries were provided across towns throughout the English speaking world, accessible to all classes of people and free of charge. This was most likely emulated if not copied across many countries and language groups where there was a will for the populous of all classes to be given easy and free access to a wide choice of books and where certain cultural essentials were commonplace. For ‘lending libraries’ to come into existence the government must be willing to fund them which they can only do if the tax system is efficient and the tax payers acquiescent to the redistribution of their contributions in this way for shared public good.  Lending libraries open to all also require a predominantly literate population motivated to read and study for themselves, a prolific publishing industry producing books in great numbers, both fiction and non fiction and very importantly and a possible reason for some cultures still not having a healthy lending library culture, sufficient honesty, trustworthiness and self discipline to actually bring the books back on time and in good condition responsibly and without persuasion or policing. Sadly there are still cultures and thus linguistic groups who cannot or will not introduce or sustain a lending library regime for the reasons outlined above.

A pattern of the growth and development in all literate societies includes scripture and associated writing, philosophy, storytelling written and performed, poetry, and legislation. The importance and centrality of religion in literature is evidenced in English in that the next ‘great’ writers after Chaucer and Shakespeare, wrote around religious themes, namely Milton, Bunyan, Dryden and Pope. The next plausible step that requires a literate audience, affordable books, an infrastructure for dissemination and creative freedom is the novel. Within any linguistic culture certain questions can be asked. When did the first novels appear with a viable readership, who, within the culture, was permitted to pen them, for example in Protestant societies Catholics would be prevented, women might take some time to achieve equal acceptability and where societies experienced immigration at what point were the immigrants and their offspring accepted and across Europe at what point were Jews allowed to write for profit and pleasure. Similar phenomena must have taken place in each literate society around the world and how and when it took place is evidence of social change within that society. Within the English tradition, English as the language we know today but not in a form we would recognise emerged around 300AD and, interestingly, after Christianity arrived in Britain. Hence, for centuries the established church had little to no interest in what they saw as an insignificant emerging dialect. Indeed, due to invasions, both Scandinavian languages and Norman French held great sway for centuries.  It was a thousand years approximately before Chaucer branched out into original story telling. It was another two hundred years before Shakespeare, Marlowe and company used the stage for their creativity and a nearly another two hundred years before the first novelists made their mark. In all this time no significant contribution was permitted from women, and after Henry VIII few Catholics were helped or encouraged to share their thoughts. Jews had lived in England until the 13th century when they were banished, only to be permitted to return in the 17th century but certainly not given any freedom to write and publish books. In the English experience women began to be accepted in the 18th century but even the Brontes in the early 19th century used male pen names as others before them had done and at the end of the 20th century Joanne Rowling was advised by her publisher to publish as J K Rowling in order not to dissuade boy readers.

Baha’is are intrinsically interested in the emergence in society of equality, justice, tolerance and the encouragement of the latent talent within every single person. What Baha’u’llah calls ‘gems of inestimable value’. The development of each facet within a language is not evolutionary. Some aspects are connected to the right time and right place as with the novel that needed cheaper production of books, a means of disseminating them and a sizeable literate audience sufficiently motivated to read them. It also required a government and church that allowed it to happen, not necessarily because they approved but more likely because they did not realise its potential to open people’s minds.  Thus, rather than evolutionary, there is a right time and right place aspect to change. Progressive developments taking place in literature in Russia, Eastern Europe and China, for example were presumably crushed when communism took over. Thus, it is not evolutionary and naturally ordained that literature will move through the stages of, for example, increasing contribution by people of different background, be it gender, race, religion, social class or any other difference.

Significant in any language is the time and circumstance that wide ranging writings appear that challenge the establishment and call for reform. Within the English tradition, as well as books, newspapers and pamphlets played a pivotal role. Within any language culture the ostracised, for example immigrants into the society and believers of ‘other’ sects or religions, would most likely eventually plead, through writing, their case to be accepted and respected. The French Revolution and the opening of the colonies in North America gave birth to disseminating writing about justice and equality and newspapers and pamphlets played an important role. Naturally, there is an irony in that the section of society with most to gain from literature about increased justice and equality are those with the least access to literacy. Thus, a call for education for all accompanied literature suggesting reform. When such writing became prevalent, the poor and dispossessed, as is still the case across much of the world, were mainly rural peasants. With the onset of industrialisation at the end of the eighteenth century many ‘peasants’ in industrialising nations moved into towns and became the ‘working class’.  This unleashed a new arena of writing to call for worker protection, starting with children and women.  For women generally, within the English tradition, Mary Wolstencraft’s book, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ published at the end of the Eighteenth Century is seen as kick starting the debate about women’s equal treatment, particularly her argument about equal access to education. In the United States the struggle for emancipation of slaves and their offspring was a debate that waged for well over a century and in 1963 Martin Luther King famously expressed frustration with the lack of progress made after the Emancipation Act a hundred years previously in 1863.

Thus, in any language group an important barometer of change towards the ideals elucidated by Baha’u’llah in His revelation is the amount of literature about reform, the development of schooling to make literacy widespread and evolving and sustained freedom of speech. Each language group can ask itself how and when did that take place within their linguistic culture and was this evolution continually progressive or did events lead to a suspension of freedom of speech, outlawing groups within the culture or powerful reactionary forces who wish to ‘turn back the clock’ to some perceived golden age when they, the current most powerful group, believed they were unchallenged in their right to leadership.

The Baha’i faith is reportedly the second most widespread religious community in the world. For that reason the Baha’i writings are translated into an enormous number of languages, interestingly translated from the English translations of Shoghi Effendi and later from the English translations commissioned by the Universal House of Justice. The Baha’i community across the globe has an identical and united pattern of organisation developed by Shoghi Effendi, using the North American Baha’i community as his testing ground in the nineteen twenties and thirties. Within this organisation, as ordained by Baha’u’llah, there are no priests and no single individual can make decisions or change the way in which the Baha’i community organises itself and runs its affairs and there is total equality and every single Baha’i has a voice and a right to be heard.  The listeners to each voice, those who serve on administrative bodies or are appointed to advise, do not put themselves forward, have no hidden agendas or personal motive and cannot gain either financially or in standing from their office. Despite this being shockingly new to people whose cultural tradition includes powerful priests, political apparatchiks or despotic rulers, within such cultures new adherents to the Baha’i faith quickly assimilate Baha’u’llah’s principles and apply them to their personal lives and community organisation. Also the worldwide Baha’i community continually educates itself with programmes that in all linguistic groups can help the adherents throw off traditional ways of acting and thinking that run counter to developing a society as egalitarian, just, and sustainable as that promoted by Baha’u’llah’s revelation and seen by Him as a sign of mankind’s movement from turbulent adolescence into mature adulthood. A time when war, racism, nationalism and all manifestations of inequality and injustice will have disappeared.