Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Some More Economics of Language

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece on the economics of language, in which I speculated on what the global language was likely to be. I argued in particular that one of the things working against the shoving aside of English by Chinese, even if Chinese economic strength continues to grow, is that the Chinese language is not as good at expressing new concepts, because of its fixed character set. Whereas English (and many other languages, including Japanese) is very welcoming of outright foreign constructions, in Chinese the existing character set must be used to create a rough synonym for new ideas. Something is therefore presumably lost in the translation of foreign neologisms. (The Japanese, despite their use of Chinese characters, avoid this problem by also using a phonetic alphabet for foreign words, allowing them to be imported in directly, sometimes with altered meaning.)

But one advantage of the static or centrally planned (as with the Académie Francaise policing the French language) tongue is its very constancy. Any educated Chinese person may have a much better chance of reading classic Chinese documents because the character set is known to him. The English speaker, on the other hand, has it much harder because new words are constantly being coined, in addition to new usage rules. (I found this argument as I was rereading Jacques Barzun’s magisterial From Dawn to Decadence.) For an American in 2007, Mark Twain is mostly readable, Shakespeare can be read by the generally well-educated, but Chaucer and certainly Beowulf are impossible to read without arcane training. The policed, more static language thus makes it easier to communicate, as it were, with the culture of the past.

How important this is depends on how important you think the future is, versus the past. I, and Americans in general, tend to be future-oriented people, and in an atmosphere of general cultural and technological dynamism a fixed language is more of a problem in taking advantage of, and contributing to, this ferment. But if you believe, as Edmund Burke did, that society is an eternal contract among “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” linguistic evolution is problematic. Perhaps it is thus not surprising then that people of a conservative temperament are most eager for prescriptive linguistics, for a language of rules, instead of asserting that whatever people are saying right now is grammatically correct.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Joshua said...

Perhaps it is thus not surprising then that people of a conservative temperament are most eager for prescriptive linguistics, for a language of rules, instead of asserting that whatever people are saying right now is grammatically correct.

In that way, it's sort of like the strict-constructionist vs. living-document debate over the proper interpretation of the Constitution - which, come to think of it, is further complicated by the evolution of American English in the years since the Constitution was drafted.

It also brings to mind my short, and perhaps a wee bit simplistic, rule of thumb for American politics: Conservatives care first and foremost about the process, liberals care first and foremost about the end results.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

I think that's a good way to think about it. Conservatives are aware that the process itself is a fragile thing.

Your point about the Constitution is germane to the Supreme Court's upcoming decision on whether gun ownership is an individual right. Interpreted into modern language the 2nd Amendment seems to indicate that because we need a militia, individuals have a right to bear arms. But the only serious way to handle this question is to actually see what the founders intended by looking into the historical record, which is what a Bork or a Scalia would do. Reading it from a 2008 point of view of what the words mean is just not helpful. If we do, the law becomes just another venue for majority rule.

5:51 PM  

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