Language as an Economic Tool

pompidou-rightLanguage is a contract, written down in law, where  words become  a meaning and how words should be written in a certain specific way.

It means – for example – that the word “banana” refers to a green (not ripe) or yellow (ripe) or black (overripe) curved fruit and does not describe a table or a chair. Banana is specific, it can be written only in one way, with the spelling of the letters determined by law and published in an official dictionary.

Let’s take another example, let’s take the word pizza – in French “galette” or in German “Flammkuchen” – but not the same thing, Both a different kind of food, differently made, with different taste, and a different meaning. The point is, that when we use a word we have to have a contract to understand where we are talking about. But if you are in France and you buy a pizza, then you don’t buy a galette, you buy something that is based on Italian recipe invented in America and not in Napoli.

Again, language is just an agreement made between intelligent people, intellectual people. An agreement which should be adapted and that’s why I plead for keeping language alive and not in a vegetable comatose state of survival as some civil servants believe it should be harnessed.

Language is our most frequent used instrument for all and everybody day in day out. Without language we would be in the pre-human hominid generation in which we would address our fellows with primitive sound like sheep and cows.

Now – that written contract allows us also to change the contents (and thus the language) and several countries do that regularly; often countries agree to have a language-review every ten years.

The Dutch do it. The French do it. The Germans do it;

But the last time Germans did it, they made a mess of it. The tri-lateral commission’s proposal (consisting of some “wise-guy authors” and teachers)to adapt the usual writing – of several words – to a more modern way was rejected by leading journals and newspapers. Consequently the new rules were boycotted and the law made a fool of the lawmakers. A simple action of pressure groups after the law got into effect prevented it to be applied. This underlines the economic aspects of the grammatical rules of the language.

Now – we all know that  language should be a living thing – when it gets older it gets rustier, it gets words or expressions which are not in use anymore. New words will get in use, old abandoned. Language can be repaired. If we are sick we go to a hospital; we get treatment. In language, the doctors are the authors, journalists, politicians, artists, composers: those people who use language as a professional tool.

The worst way language can be used as professional tool is by civil servants or by lawyers. Both are able to phrase sentences which they themselves have difficulty to understand. Often courts have to rule on the proper understanding of what has been written.

The other explicit way in which language can be taken out of its meaning is by artists, poets, authors, singers, or composers. In a stage act drama or a song, words might get a different or double interpretation. Examples are “banana republic” or “blame game”.

One of the ugliest way language has been used – to camouflage the real meaning – is: “collateral damage” or “friendly fire” when people get killed. It is nothing else but plain governmental murder. However it seems that today’s society has agreed this phrase to be acceptable for a deplorable act of violence against mankind.

Now there are other facets – of this tool or instrument, with indirect influence on the economic development of a society.

Language can be an advantage but also an economic obstacle. If you are educated in a country where they don’t speak English and you emigrate voluntarily or involuntarily to a country where English is the basic language, it will be easy to learn the English language and to integrate and assimilate. In practice, language becomes an economic tool for the medical doctor who has been studying in a country like Slovakia and emigrates to England, where he finds the English language easy to learn and essential to communicate with patients.

However on the opposite: an English doctor who would like to emigrate to Slovakia will find himself in a mess because he enters an environment where the language had been made so difficult that it takes probably twice, or three times the time to learn. It can even be more difficult to learn a language which has no relationship with other languages and thus stands alone e.g. Finnish, Maltese or Hungarian. In addition to those difficulties “language” is a social barrier which separates the intellectual from the rest of the population The tool “language” can be made easy or difficult as an entry to integration.

(Not referring to languages which use other letters or character-signs, like Japanese, Thai, Chinese or Russian. )

The English pronunciation by people who studied at the old universities like Cambridge, or Oxford sets them apart. The same goes for the École Polytechnique in France .

On the other hand when -as we now experience in Germany – a million people enter a language area arriving from a completely different cultural society, with different language and a different way of writing the language, integration has high educational costs related to the complexity of learning a language. As learning ability goes with age and routine, even mid-age people who have left the learning and study circuit, will find exotic grammatical rules a hindrance for assimilation. Changing reading and writing from right to left instead of from left to right is for all extremely difficult to integrate in the German society, only and alone based on the time and energy to learn the language.

Emigrants encounter a double obstacle;  on one side the grammatical rules of a language are a handicap, on the other side the social barriers of the society where these people have to integrate. Often exclusion from the social structure of society is based on the use of language. Now – if you for one moment – visualize the use of the language by somebody who doesn’t have a north European or western complexion: the double obstacle becomes optical and acoustical.

This in itself would be a consideration for governments of countries which have a difficult language to research if it is worthwhile to keep the language as an economic obstacle for progress, for equal economic opportunity and the elimination of social-poverty.  Or to introduce English as a second language for higher study and use in some branches of the economy ( i.e. medicine – engineering – trade)

A part of the population – based on cultural and other aspects –  want to preserve the language in the way it is today. But the language “in use” today is not the language used 400 years ago. There is a significant difference between the use of language in the past and the social use of language today. That in itself is a proof that language should evolve, should change its way of use, should adapt, should be kept alive. Conservative (often politically impregnated) requests for the perseverance of the cultural identity of a population to retain grammatical rules have a high economic toll and are historically unrealistic. To take a very simple example: protests came with the increased use of English words in French (Loi Toubon) and German newspapers and advertising (Duden Leitkultur).

Germans long used the abbreviation EDV Elektronische Datenverarbeitungmachine instead of computer (while the French call it an ordinateur.) If it is possible to create absurd words for a the same machine like PKW Personenkraftwagen or Voiture (un véhicule automobile à roues propulsé), it must be possibe to simplify the matter.

There is no valid argument against the use of a word taken from another language if it creates progress in communication. Nobody would say that “OK”, those two letters which are universally understood, is unacceptable to any language. There is nothing wrong saying “OK” in French or “OK” in Thai. There’s nothing wrong when you speak Portuguese and use the word Bratwurst, because Bratwurst is a specific food eaten in Germany. It is not regularly available in Portuguese Food Temples. Every Portuguese will recognize it as a foreign sausage. Therefore it is acceptable to call it bratwurst. That’s why we call a hotdog a hotdog although no dog has been used and there is no dog in the neighborhood! (unless you are in the eastern part of Switzerland where they used dogs for sausages,… but that is beside the point.)

Language can be adapted and it should be adapted also to compete on the world market and prevent social exclusion. It is a bit silly if not allowed to use English, or French or German words in another language.

Language-study is furthermore a time parasite in education. Much of education is related to learning how to write proper sentences. Students attending English lessons have less energy to invest to learn the language as (for example) the same-age student in France. In the end they communicate the same message with different words. This time consuming exercise is to the disadvantage of cultures with complicated language grammar. The time could have been used for other topics or just for fun. Learning a foreign language because of emigration is to the disadvantage of the national economy as there is no added value to trade or to exchange.

Immigration of people means also a voluntary or involuntarily immigration of words and that part of immigration should be as welcome as the people who came with it. This improve s the social and economic cohesion in a country.

As for several reasons, cultural or historic, it might be difficult to get a revision of grammar applied to a language, a national effort should be made to simplify certain exotic habits. For example the German insist to write their Nouns with a capital, although there is no economic or grammatical logic and acceptable fundament for this habit. The same goes for words in French using a silent H or S, or in Dutch where they combine two letters (the I and the j) to form an exclusive Dutch letter. By gradually simplifying the use of exotic non-essential  grammatical rules (while letting the out-of-school generation using the previous rules) teachers, students and the general economy might have less burdens to cope with.

© 2016 Robert G Coenen

And before you forget:
Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell