LINGUIST List 13.871

Thu Mar 28 2002

Disc: New: Economic Value of Lang Diversity

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Stirling Newberry, Re: 13.816, Media: Language Death: Wall Street Journal

Message 1: Re: 13.816, Media: Language Death: Wall Street Journal

Date: Tue, 26 Mar 2002 13:50:37 -0800 (PST)
From: Stirling Newberry <>
Subject: Re: 13.816, Media: Language Death: Wall Street Journal

An open letter on the economic value of language

In his editorial of March 8th in the Wall Street
Journal on page 13, John W. Miller laughs gleefully
about the predicted extinction of half of the world's
languages within the next generation. He argues that
if they are dying out, that is because they are
inferior, and says that it is the "reality" that "most
people prefer a Big Mac."

What is ironic here, for those that miss it, is that
"Big Mac" and, the restaurant that made it famous
"McDonalds", and the famous "Ronald McDonald" icon
which represents them both - all play off of Gaelic
patronymics. The Gaelic languages of the British Isles
being exactly the sort of minor languages which the
piece scoffs at the utility of. If minor languages
were not useful, there would be no "Le Big Mac" in
Paris to sell. 

This is a general point - one of the sources of
economic utility which a society has access to are the
non-dominant languages which exist within the sphere
of economic and political power of a dominant
language. If one needs a more hard headed example,
consider the use of Navajo as a code language by the
US in World War II and later. Ready made, and
resistant to attempts to decipher it, since it avoided
the markers which are most useful in code cracking -
gramatical markers of usage or position.

To take an even larger example - "Anglo-American"
jurisprudence and business culture have a very large
dose of the Hebrew law scholarship and Yiddish hard
headed saavy mixed in. The integration of these
language resources into English in America is part and
parcel of the success of New York at becoming
financial capital of the world.

The argument for "linguistic monoculture" runs thin
quickly, when one considers that many of the languages
of Europe's current EU members and other European
states were, a little more than a century ago,
politically peripheral - even banned. Finnish, Czech,
and Norwegian are all, in their modern forms,
languages created by conscious activity. If a century
and a half ago the advice of the Wall Street Journal
had been followed, we would still be dealing with
decaying central european empires imposing cultural
hegemony. I would advise anyone telling a Finn that
his language is culturally subsidiary and therefore it
should have been extinguished by the Russians to be
out of arms length when they do so. 

The process which changed languages such as Finnish
from being folk tongues spoken by a handful of
economically marginal individuals to being national
languages used by digitally connected politically
stable social democracies began in the 19th century,
and is a by product of Romantic Nationalism. The
process was predicated on the idea that small tightly
knit zones of language and cultural unity possessed
the advantages of being focused over lumbering
language monopolies imposed from afar. That the
process of conversion from folk resource to national
language has not completed in many regions of the
world - such as former colonial areas of Africa - does
not deny the economic utility of producing national
languages in those regions, from which stable
nation-states with stable business climates emerge.

In otherwords, it is not in the long term best
interest of the West to prevent the same process which
turned Europe from a feudal patchwork riven by
constant tribal warfare into a commonwealth of nations
from taking its course else where. In fact, as with
the introduction of many other Western ideas, the
conversion of languages from their subsistence
agricultural form, to one capable of running a modern
economy, is part of the process known as
"globalization". People in Shanghai do not speak
English, they speak a chinese which is aquiring the
ability to interface with the global technological and
financial community.

The further economic utility of non-politically
dominant languages can be seen in the daily diet of
the average American. Coffee, tea, potatoes, rice,
corn, tobacco, squash, pumpkin, pasta are all products
which were originally center in particular cultures,
who preserved the ethno-culture, that's how to raise
the damn things to the academically challenged out
there, of the particular crop. It was local tribes
that taught Europeans to dry tapioca leaves in the sun
- as harvested they are poisonous. In an era which is
discovering the vital importance of harvesting genetic
information for drugs and treatments, we should be
appreciative, not dismissive, of the benefits of
localised knowledge stored in localised forms.

The implicit argument, however, in the piece is that
minor languages cannot compete in the global world.
However, the facts state otherwise. Dutch, Finnish,
Japanese, Tamil, Czech, Hebrew and Gaelic are all
languages which are spoken by relatively limited
groups of individuals, and yet these groups are
economically vibrant. 

The ability to preserve a culturally central language,
and still compete in the global economy is a social
technology. Like other social technologies - such as
voluntary compliance with laws, limiting family size,
education of children and personal hygiene to prevent
the spread of disease - it can be transfered and
taught. So long as language instruction in the
economically important language begins very early,
there is no conflict between maintaining a regional
language, and complete fluency in the economically
central one. In fact, in my industry -
telecommunications - customer relationship call
centers are being relocated to India because many
people residing in that nation speak more accurate
Standard Business English than can be found at
comparable salaries in the United States. 

A further economic utlity of subsidiary languages is,
in fact, in globalisation. The use of the regional
dialect of Chinese as a means of creating a small
cultural space where credibility can be monitored
without reference to governments is part and parcel of
the economic success of ethnic Chinese in Europe, the
US and across Asia. Economists even have a name for
the structure it has produced - "The Bamboo Kite".

Thus the utility of a large cross section of languages
cannot be denied. The WSJ piece makes the implicit
argument that if people are not preserving subsidiary
languages, it is because there is something defective
about them, or the absence of a general will implies
that that is the correct course of action. This,
however, is an argument contradicted by the
fundamental text of Capitalist theory: Adam Smith's
Wealth of Nations. In it Smith argues that education
is one of the pillars of the market economy, which
must be maintained as part of the common good, just as
prevention of monopolies must be maintained. While
there are short term advantages in allowing control,
subordination or decay of the commons, the long term
interests of the whole dictate that all be willing to
maintain educational commons because all benefit by
more than the cost of maintaining them.

The UN's purpose is to serve as a global organisation
to maintain the commons of the entire planet. Peace
being the most important single common resource,
naturally the pursuit of globally productive peace is
first and fore-most, but the maintenance of health,
education and, yes, cultural resources is also part of
both its mandate and its purpose. To scoff at the UN
being concerned about the deterioration in one aspect
of the common resource from which economic activity
draws makes as much sense at scoffing at a company
concerned about deteriorating market conditions. 

Thus the solution to the problem of dying languages is
not a museum like preservation, but application of the
techniques of modernisation, economisation and
culturalisation of languages which have been gradually
developing over the last 2 centuries - and to teach
smaller language groups the technologies which have
allowed Dutch and Finnish - to name two - to remain
active and growing languages, while also being
intimately interconnected with the global economy.

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