Does the World Need a Universal Language?
During this month back in 1865, men from New Zealand’s native Māori tribes faced off against representatives of the British Crown near the town of Opotiki, New Zealand. With artillery, shotguns, revolvers, swords and tomahawks, the two sides crashed against each other, leaving scores dead and many more injured.
“With drawn swords we galloped into them and caught them in the short fern, and we killed or severely wounded 20—nearly a Māori apiece for us,” wrote Sgt. William Wallace of the British Crown’s Wanganui Yeomanry Cavalry.
“I saw one of our troopers, armed with a curved sword or scimitar, cutting away at a Māori, but not making much impression, as the sword was so blunt,” Wallace said.
This bloody October 1865 clash was just one short chapter in the nearly-three-decades-long conflict now known as the New Zealand Wars. All together, the violence of these wars claimed the lives of some 2,150 Māori and around 745 representatives of the British Crown.
Historians agree that the seeds of the conflict were sown 25 years before that Opotiki clash. Ironically enough, they were sown in pursuit of peace: Māori chiefs were seeking protection from sailors, convicts and merchants who were bringing strife into their villages. The Māori also wanted security from any potential takeover by colonizing powers such as France, and to bring an end to the intertribal Musket Wars that were killing tens of thousands of their people.
On the other side of the negotiating table was the British who sought to expand the reach of their stabilizing empire.
In pursuit of a peaceful solution that would benefit both sides, the Māori leaders and the British drew up the Treaty of Waitangi. Both sides felt that the agreement suited their needs, so on February 6 of 1840, around 535 Māori chiefs and several representatives of the British Crown signed the document.
But something was lost in translation.
According to the English version of the treaty, the Māori agreed to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of sovereignty.”
But due to mistranslations in the Māori version and misunderstandings, many on the Māori side did not think they were giving up sovereignty. Instead, they believed they were assimilating themselves into the British legal system and giving the British the right to keep the peace, but that the treaty allowed them to maintain the right to rule themselves and to manage their own affairs.
“The meaning of the English version was not exactly the same as the meaning of the Māori translation,” writes The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. “Although it was intended to create unity, different understandings of the treaty, and breaches of it, have caused conflict.”
During the months after the treaty was signed, the conflicts caused by these “different understandings” grew increasingly intense. They eventually erupted into war. During the 1840s, the New Zealand Wars occurred mainly around Northland and the southern region of the North Island. In the 1860s, they were concentrated around the central North Island, including the clash near Opotiki.
And the dispute did not entirely end at the conclusion of the New Zealand Wars. To this day, the Treaty of Waitangi remains the subject of heated debate and disagreement between factions on the two sides. Disputes about the treaty’s meaning continue to cause strife that is the antithesis of the harmony it was intended to bring about.
This chapter of history proves that language barriers have contributed to the discord and competition that have been the defining characteristics of mankind’s history.
In a world of 6,700 languages and 39,000 distinct dialects, communication problems are inevitable. Nuance, context, idioms, tone and grammatical oddities mean languages can seldom be translated word by word. Instead, translators have to strive to convey general ideas. Often, as in the case of translating the English word “sovereignty” into Māori, approximations must be used. Sometimes intentional ambiguities are introduced into translations to further one side’s interests. Whatever the exact cause, the result is confusion.
In most cases, the confusion stays within the realm of embarrassment and inconvenience. But sometimes—as in the example of the Treaty of Waitangi—it ends up veering into more serious territory, and causing long-lasting problems.
But there is good news.
Bible prophecy makes clear that a time is on the horizon when the language barriers that currently divide mankind and hinder peace efforts will be obliterated.
The Bible plainly shows that after Jesus Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, the peoples of all nations will come to speak just one universal language. Zephaniah 3:9 talks about this future time, stating: “For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent.”
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible says the word “pure” in this passage means “clarified, made bright, carefully selected and clearly polished.” That is a word imbued with great power and meaning! This word signifies that beyond being universally spoken, this future worldwide language will also be free of the ambiguity and imperfection that corrupt all modern languages. It will be free of the type of impurities that contributed to the Crown and the Māori lifting up weapons against each other in the New Zealand Wars.
This Bible passage also shows that during this future time, the nations will use their universal language to praise and serve the Creator God.
World-renowned educator Herbert W. Armstrong discussed what the world will be like during the future time when all men speak this pure language, and use it to praise God:
[O]nce the returning Christ conquers this Earth, He will usher in an era of total literacy, total education—and give the world one, new, pure, language. … Think of the new era of good literature, good music, and of the avoiding of duplicated effort, misunderstandings through linguistic difficulties and thousands of painstaking hours of translations. What an age it will be, when all the world becomes truly educated—and speaks the same language.
In the present world, rife with linguistic confusion that contributes to frictions of all kinds, it is difficult to imagine such a bright and harmonious future. But the Bible makes clear that the dawning of that age of pure speech and lasting peace is very near.
To understand the hope of this era, and to learn how you can be preparing now for that future time, order a free copy of Mr. Armstrong’s booklet The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It Will Be Like.