LINGUIST List 13.954

Sun Apr 7 2002

Disc: Economic Value of Language Diversity

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Stefanie Herrmann, Disc: Economic Value of Lang Diversity
  2. Theresa Savage, Economic Value of Language Diversity

Message 1: Disc: Economic Value of Lang Diversity

Date: Wed, 03 Apr 2002 18:56:25 +0200
From: Stefanie Herrmann <>
Subject: Disc: Economic Value of Lang Diversity

I would like to comment on two details of this discussion: economy and 
First of all from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, economy 
is but one aspect of a culture. Now in our "western" capitalistic 
culture, economy presents itself as the most important part of culture. 
And the god of progress considers all other ways of life as 
underdeveloped and doomed to fade away (this is not unlike communism 
viewed diversity). But this is only the inner discourse of this 
particular way of life. Nevertheless even in western-Europe and north 
America other parts of culture than economy play an important role. And 
who knows how long our way of living will be the powerful one?
People may give up languages for a number of reasons, political pressure 
(up to the menace of death for those speaking a language) was mentioned. 
But there are also reasons to cling to a language. Like for example the 
case of reviving Welsh, that is doing nowadays much better than Irish, 
precisely because it is needed for the Welsh identity.
Apart from the economic utility, bio-diversity was mentioned as a quasi 
genetic utility: survival of the species. It is all too true that we 
have survived because we have only one specification as a species and 
this is our adaptability or NON-SPECIFICATION. Our ability to carve 
(here I had to look up in a dictionary) our environment to our needs by 
means of technology and ideology. As we can not foresee future 
requirements, we should not try to control cultural or genetic diversity.
Nowadays there is a tendency to try and preserve cultures in a kind of 
living museum or zoo. Trying to convince the !Kung (South African) to go 
and live like their ancestors with all the thirst and hunger. This is 
arrogant. People will make choices according to their needs _if_ they are 
in a position to do so. 
And "utility" is not the only relevant factor at all if it comes to 
culture, and to language as a manifestation of culture. Not a single 
culture is wholly constructed along the lines of utility aiming at pure 
survival. People also need for instance aesthetics or identity. So in 
every respect it is short sighted to accept only the economic argument 
about the "utility" of languages.
P. S. I will have to look up "utilitarism" in the Brockhaus (German 

Stefanie Herrmann
Universit�t T�bingen
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Message 2: Economic Value of Language Diversity

Date: Sat, 06 Apr 2002 13:27:05 +1000
From: Theresa Savage <>
Subject: Economic Value of Language Diversity

Re: 13.816

Miller's article has got to be one of the best things that ever
happened to scholarship in endangered languages as far as I am
concerned. It highlights the fact that it is not only minority groups
and linguists who have an opinion about the pros and cons of language
diversity. Researchers in the field of business, particularly
international business and, more specifically in an area known as
'Decision Science' (part of studies in Management and, yes, they do
regard it as a 'science'), are delving into this very issue. I have
been involved in the 'Decision Sciences' research too since a
restructuring at my university put Languages into the School of
Business in 1996. The longer we are located in this school, the
stronger the pressure to 'refocus' research to be 'in line' with
business. So, to make a long story short, it is not because I was so
astute to realise that linguists have to address linguistic issues
that apply to international business, but rather a decision on my
behalf to survive in spite of economic rationalism. In order to
ensure that my old department has a place in the School of Business, I
have been doing some collaborative research with a 'Decision
Scientist'. We have been investigating ethical ways for multinational
corporations to make decisions about language choice based on the
linguistic point of view using social judgment theory (and a lot of
statistical analysis, which is what seems to make it so 'scientific').
I am not aware of any other collaborative research of this sort, but
it is obvious that there are many linguists who do/have done research
about the economics of language/bilingualism or the use of language by
multinational firms. Fran�ois Grin, Fran�ois Vaillancourt, Florian
Coulmas, Nigel Holden, Jernudd Bjorn, Albert Breton and Peter
Mieszkowski are only a few such people. In fact it is Florian Coulmas
(1992, Language and Economy) who threw down the challenge, "*the value
of language is determined by a number of factors, all of which
contribute to make language not only a medium but also an element of
economic process. By recapitulating the most important ones we can
now approximate a more detailed specification of what is to be
understood by the term "value of language," although the weighing of
the factors is a difficult problem yet to be resolved. At the present
state of our knowledge it seems impossible to me to offer a solution,
which is not only well argued but also free of arbitrary decisions.
This is due to a deficit in theoretical and empirical research, which
can only be amended gradually by collecting more information on how
economic processes are affected by linguistic conditions*" (Coulmas

In other words, we are trying to develop a framework for the
assessment of the value of a language within the context of a firm's
strategic environment.

In the course of my collaboration with a Decision Scientist, it has
struck me that although he is an altruistic person and most of the
people I have met at a Decision Science conference seem to be
interested in ethical practices for businesses (and that does include
the language issues too), there are a lot of people out there who are
not that way inclined. Besides, the person I am collaborating with
does not have a linguistics background, although he is studying it
based on readings I suggest to him. What makes matters worse, the
ones making the decisions have the power to either take the opinion of
linguists and minority language groups seriously or not. If we do not
address these more 'unpleasant' questions seriously from the point of
view that decisions about languages are being made by multinational
business corporations, then we can not be effective in our fight to
help save endangered languages. The asking of unpleasant questions is
a good thing. We should not be dependent on people like Miller to ask
these questions. I am involved in this line of research and I could
use some help from people who share my views. I have a heavy teaching
commitment and not much time to devote to the research side of these
kinds of issues. It would be so nice to have more linguists working
in this field or at least understand that if I do ask a heretical
question on this list, you will have some idea of where I am coming


Theresa Savage
Marketing and Languages
The School of Business
Swinburne University of Technology
John Street
Hawthorn, Victoria Australia 3122
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