Columns Culture

Everyday Economics: The Economics of Language

It’s always baffled me that Classics, a degree revolving around two ‘dead’ languages (in both senses of the word), persists in the modern world. It does so not so much in a spoken context, but in a literary one. It would be understandable to think that a language that spawned five others would have taken the backbench and eventually disappeared; and yet here we are, 2000 years from its origins, still constantly studying its values and products. So what made Latin and Ancient Greek far more durable than, say, Gaulish?

Jacob Marschak suggested a way in which we can scientifically approach this, by reforming this question into one reminiscent of evolutionary terms: ‘Given the environment, what determines the probability that a set of traits will remain in existence for a given length of time?’

It might seem a little depressing to reduce something with so many individualities to a matter of costs and benefits, but in doing so we can perhaps explain why one language may be more likely to outlive another. If we say that the creator of a language (or the founder of a society’s particular communication system) is the fundamental policy-maker, what makes this particular policy successful in the long-term? The policy must adapt to changing environments so that it is able to match the demands (such as the level of information transmitted and the efficiency) of its consumers. Are interventionist policies the way to go in order to preserve a language’s traditions?

The Académie Française is a practical example of the ways in which such policies might be implemented. Its main purpose is to “work with all possible care and diligence to give definite rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences.” The final requirement demonstrates the importance placed on the French language’s capacity to develop alongside progress in science and the arts – and other languages should be the same.

But problems with the purity of the language are beginning to arise. France’s global tech developments are limited in comparison to companies such as Apple and Microsoft, and have therefore ended up with a long list of ‘eloquent’ technological vocabulary; although they’ve managed to impose a thick accent onto ‘Wi-Fi’ (read: wee-fee), the etymology – or blatant borrowing – of the word persists.

We must also distinguish between the two different forms of languages that are no longer used in the modern-day. The first are ‘dead’ languages, such as Latin, and the second are ‘extinct’. The latter is a language that no longer has any speakers who are still alive; by contrast, ‘dead’ languages are no longer the native language of any community. By 2050, some 90% of the languages spoken in 2004 are estimated to become extinct. Typically, languages in the modern world have become extinct due to increased cultural assimilation. Perhaps, then, although the Acadèmie is intervening in the ‘free market’ of the French language, this interventionism is an absolute necessity for survival given the ever-growing global environment.

In deciding what vocabulary should be officially recognised, the Académie will weigh up the costs and benefits of such an addition. ‘Wi-Fi’ may reduce the purity of the language, but will equally allow for greater linguistic efficiency and adaptability in facing the threat of modern globalism.

This kind of (arguably) linguistic deterioration does not limit itself to France. In 1961, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language was published and decided – fatally – to equate ‘uninterested’ with ‘disinterested’. Purists will shudder at such a heinous error; so, too, will economists. In doing so, the dictionary actually created greater inefficiencies by leaving some concepts undefinable, and therefore reducing the level of information being transmitted by the use of a particular word.

So, are languages that convey their meaning more efficiently – that is, in a much barer and concise structure – more likely to endure the sands of time? Well, when considering the economy of effort, the impact of language evolution into more succinct terms is inevitable. Take the use of ‘lol’ and text language, for example. It both represents the English language’s ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, and its ability to morph into far more efficient terms. The brevity of ‘lol’ transmits the same level of information as a sentence that might say ‘that’s amusing’, but in a far shorter time period. When combined with the huge volume of similarly abbreviated vocabulary, the overall efficiency of the English language is far greater than it was in Shakespeare’s time.

Of course, the economy of effort should not always apply to communication; instead, the environment will determine if the most efficient use of language is brevity. If an environment fluctuates frequently, a language with the capacity to describe such an environment is more likely to survive than one with limits on its descriptive ability. There must be a balance; whilst Benoit Mandelbrot, a mathematician and polymath, demonstrated that on average a word’s cost will increase per letter added, the benefits of that addition (such as greater nuance) must also be considered.

The probability of survival can be maximised over the set of word-distributions and over the set of information rates. This produces a balanced evaluation of the costs and benefits of a language in any given environment and, just like in the most basic model of economics, if the costs outweigh the benefits then the allocation of resources must be adapted; and if they are not adapted, then the language will, over time, cease to function.

Is the fact that Classics remains a well-respected degree an indication that our cultural and political environment has changed little over the 2000 or so years since its spoken existence? Plato and Aristotle still often feature as compulsory reading in a wide variety of university degrees, albeit often in a translated format. But clearly the cultural environment in which the modern Western world exists is, although rapidly changing, still inherently tied to its foundations. Latin and Ancient Greek persist in our modern-day environment most likely as a result of their sustained relevance and constant provision of influential information. Perhaps there will come a time when they are no longer studied or considered beneficial to academia; that time, whilst we currently find ourselves with a Prime Minister whose idols include Pericles, seems far in the distant future.


Flora is studying French and Italian at Christ Church. She would like someone to believe her when she says the scar on her knee came from a shark and hopes this biography will make it happen.