The Language of Wealth

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In a Wash Times col, Richard Rahn asks whether speaka da English will make you rich:

If you look at the list of wealthiest countries on a per capita income basis, you will notice almost all the top 20 are English-speaking, or use some other Germanic language, with the exception of France, Japan, and Finland (however, most Finns know German and English as well as Swedish, and many Frenchmen know German and/or English).

But before you go into battle under the English-only banner being flown by Sen. Lamar! Alexander and others, duly note:

English is becoming the world language by default, precisely because there is no institution that states what English is, thus it is totally open to new ideas, concepts, technologies, etc. (like open source software). In fact, the two largest English-speaking nations, the United States and the United Kingdom, do not have an official language (unlike most other countries)—English is only the de facto official language. Any country can adopt English as an official language if it wishes—and now about 50 of them have done so.

Whole bit here.

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  1. Open-source prevails again!

  2. “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”

    – Miriam “Ma” Ferguson

  3. Now, if you read the source article in the Washington Post, the most bizarre twist of irony appears: Mr. Rahn praises English for being open, contrary to French and Arabic, and then goes on to illustrate this power by saying that there is no word for “present value”, “depreciation” in Russian and no word for “enterprise” in Arabic. Yet those four words are… directly taken from French.

  4. Why does Reason hate non-English speakers?

  5. “English is becoming the world language by default, precisely because there is no institution that states what English is, thus it is totally open to new ideas, concepts, technologies, etc. (like open source software).”

    Um, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” anyone?

    (Irony of using non-English expression duly noted.)

  6. Francis,
    Don’t forget, there ain’t no French word for entrepreneur.

  7. I find the claim that many Frenchmen know German and/or English highly suspect. Clearly the sucess of some English speaking countries reflects culture rather than language. English is widely spoken in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Jamaica and Papua New Guinea. But prosperity and free markets haven’t really taken off in those countries. And the Phillipines, who speak better English than the Taiwanese or Japanese, continue to lag behind the rest of East Asia.

  8. Kip,
    It seems that 20 years ago, French was the international language. Things tend to change in this arena.

    Also, since when does the UAE speak a Germanic language? It’s #4 according to the CIA Factbook.

  9. Lol! And don’t get me wrong: I love English, and tend to agree that its openness is what makes its strength.

    Cheers, everyone!

  10. Francis – just a little schadenfreude?

  11. so english is the lingua franca?

  12. It ain’t the language, Nick, it’s the goddamn Protestant ethic that makes you rich. You’ll notice that all of the monied nations are northern European, by location or extraction. It’s those years of hymn-singing that give you the guts to go out there and make the bucks. Instead of aid, we should be handing out sheet music for “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” Gimme that old-time religion!

  13. English is one of the easiest languages to learn poorly, and one of the most difficult to learn well.

    For purposes of basic trade, only a very few words are needed, and virtually no grammar per se. Literate English, on the other hand, can take a lifetime to master.

    While it’s not in the same ballpark as some of the most brutal of the languages of the Caucuses, it’s still pretty awful to tackle if you don’t have the good fortune (in today’s English-speaking world) to have it as your milk tongue.

    As for making it the legal official language of the USA, we got through how many waves of immigration by foreign-language speakers without losing English as our national tongue already? Sure, we picked up a few words along the way, and we’ll doubtless continue to do so.

    As someone once observed, “English follows other languages into dark alleys, knocks them down, and goes through their pockets for spare grammar.”

  14. Would this wealth be more related tot he enlightment ideas of capitalism and the rights of individuals as developed in England a couple of hundred years ago?

    Give those ideas a few more centuries to spread and I doubt language will be as correlated with wealth as much as political philosophy will be.

    I bet in 2206 people will be saying that Asian languages will be correlated with wealth.

  15. Bingo, NNYer. It’s not language, but culture that has given us the tools to become wealthy.

  16. This brings up an interesting point. If we adopt English as an official language, won’t we then need an official definition of English, specifying which words are English, and which aren’t?

    Do we really want to become more French?

  17. Hate to break the spell here but…

    “As someone once observed, “English follows other languages into dark alleys, knocks them down, and goes through their pockets for spare grammar.”

    Fill in any other language and you can make the same statement.

    And
    “English is one of the easiest languages to learn poorly, and one of the most difficult to learn well.”

    I do believe that the best research would indicate that on this front all languages are created nearly equal. English is the most studied language in the world. It is not typical in many ways, but it is certainly not any linguistic trait of English that makes it popular… the cultural power of the British Empire followed closely by Pax Americana is a much more reasonable explanation. Coincidence in other words.

  18. 50 countries have English as their official language? Which ones? Off the top of my head, I can only come up with the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where it’s the primary language, and it’s not official in all of those.

  19. English is somewhat unique because of the number of languages to which it’s been exposed for extended periods, leading to accretion from the external languages.

    This took place even before the rise of the British Empire, with exposure to several branches of Latin, the Norse invasions (which resulted in our greatly simplified declension and conjugation rules), and even some apparent very early interaction with a Middle Eastern language (indicated by the appearance of internal vowel shifts to indicate declension changes, iirc).

    In modern times, of course, we mostly seem to be picking up vocabulary, but there’s probably some grammar shifts going on that are hard to notice in media res.

    In any case, this long and rich history gives English a fairly unique complexity of both vocabulary (we have more synonyms than most languages, as we’ve pulled in words of similar meanings from disparate sources along the way), and grammar (where the rules have been likewise drawn from a broad genetic pool).

    As for my contention that English is uniquely suited to pidginization, I’ll give you that i have no evidence for that — just that it’s happened so much, and that, as you observe, could be because of its broad usage, rather than an inherent quality of the language.

  20. I agree with MainStreamMan: that English is so ubiquitous is much more a result of (a) British industrial power, (b) empire-building, and (c) US industrial power than anything else. But that it is open and not restricted by religious feelings toward it (like French) certainly helped its spread. English is a miracle of our age, the first time in History that a mankind speaks a single common language.

    I fondly recall when I went to Italy with a friend and he, flirting with a girl, would try to speak Italian. “Io sono candianese”, said he. Then she answered in perfect English: “Canadian? Why do you try to speak Italian?”

  21. English is becoming the world language by default, precisely because there is no institution that states what English is, thus it is totally open to new ideas, concepts, technologies, etc. (like open source software).

    Take that Dr. Johnson!

  22. “…and even some apparent very early interaction with a Middle Eastern language (indicated by the appearance of internal vowel shifts to indicate declension changes, iirc).”

    And the fact that this feature is found in most other Germanic languages naturally must mean that they all were exposed as well? You kinda lost me on this one.

  23. “In any case, this long and rich history gives English a fairly unique complexity of both vocabulary (we have more synonyms than most languages, as we’ve pulled in words of similar meanings from disparate sources along the way), and grammar (where the rules have been likewise drawn from a broad genetic pool).”

    Again, given the lack of in-depth study of most other languages, I believe you would have a hard time supporting this claim of unique complexity. Particularly when it comes to grammar.

  24. Clean Hands,

    One trend I’ve heard about is the gradual disappearance of strong verbs (ie, learnt -> learned, leapt -> leaped) from the language, which has been going on for about a century now. Also, adjectives are more and more being used in place of adverbs.

  25. The more I think about the statements indicating there is something special about the English language, the more it bugs me.

    It seems to me comparitive linguistics would expect to find a relatively restricted range of grammatical complexity… and the best evidence suppports this idea. Most languages operate on the same scale of grammatical complexity, optimized for usage and processing. Differences will be overshadowed by commonalities.

    I like Hawkins work on this idea.
    http://kybele.psych.cornell.edu/LU/Hawkins-CSLIpaper.pdf

    and Joan Bybee
    http://www.unm.edu/~jbybee/mechs_univ.htm

  26. Again, MainStreamMan scores. I don’t believe any language is inherently “more complex”, “more beautiful”, etc. than any other. Chomsky, in fact, is said to have made the demonstration of this principle. You can have a very good moment reading the excellent books of Steven Pinker about that (start by “the language instinct”).

    It may be true for example, that English has many more words than any other language (4-5 times more than French or German, for example). But this does not make it more complex: I bet the average English-speaking person uses the same amount of words daily to express his thoughts than any other speaker.

  27. Francis,

    Pinker is a very good writer and thinker. His ideas on the evolutionary sources of language (e.g., the language instinct) have, however, been fairly soundly refuted. I would recommend reading both “The Language instinct” & T. Deacon’s “The Symbolic Species” for different views on the topic (with Deacon having stronger roots in evolutionary science). Also the work of Michael Tomasello, “Constructing a language” is a good one to start with.

    “(4-5 times more than French or German, for example)”

    As you suggest, this has nothing to do with the vocabulary of an average English speaker. More importantly, it becomes difficult to support the idea that the language includes vast stores of words that are not used by its speakers. If we had some way to tally the active language, I don’t think the vocabulary sizes would differ by as much…but I don’t think we have a way to tally this yet, except for written language. Corpus-based empirical linguistics like that of Halliday and company (and the computational linguistics folks) will move us closer to an answer as more language is archived and we can analyze what people are actually saying.

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