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Somehow or other, I’ve been

April 16th, 2002 · No Comments

Somehow or other, I’ve been tapped to debate a Keynesian at some sort of function sponsored by Jinx Magazine. So I’m brushing up on my Hayek.

In other news, I had this thought about language while out with some of my boys. Terms with a narrow usage — either slang or jargon — are rather like products geared to serve a niche market. They also share with telephones and operating systems the feature of being “network commodities.” In other words, how much one is worth to you depends on how many other people have a copy. Hence Windows and Unix are more useful than OS2, and English or Spanish are more useful than Basque.

So what? Well, it’s an old economic truism that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” In other words, the more people you’re selling to, the more you can afford to specialize. Indie musicians with a small audience, for example, probably couldn’t survive just playing music for a living if their market were limited to people in one town or city. Only the ability to sell to a global market keeps them afloat, because only a few people in each area are into what they do. That’s why the Internet has been such a boon for niche markets.

But consider the effects of the Net on language. When we’re talking about languages as a whole, the pressure cuts in two directions. First, it increases the benefits of speaking a language spoken by a large number of others worldwide, because there’s a drastically increased number of possible persons to interact with… IF you speak their language. Notice that major websites outside the U.S. very often have, at the very least, and English version of their pages. And for any individual Spaniard, say, the benefits of English speaking have expanded from “able to give directions to tourists” to “able to talk to the whole of Britain and the U.S., and anyone else who speaks English but not Spanish.” For those really devoted to an esoteric language, though, there’s a flipside. Before the Internet, if I wanted to keep my Basque or Tagalog fresh, there were relatively few places I could live. But now, I at least potentially have access to a whole community of Basque speakers from anywhere on earth.

Within a given language, the “niche market” analysis indicates that we can expect a proliferation of narrowly tailored jargon and slang. Eskimos, famously, have lots of words for snow — though often the number is falsely claimed at several hundred, rather than the dozen-and-change that actually exist. Probably that wouldn’t be the case if snow fell on individuals, rather than areas, in a geographically indiscriminate way. It’s useful to have those terms only when you’re part of a linguistic community that finds them equally useful. Ditto professional jargon, or subculture slang, or whatever. As the size of the pool of potential interlocutors increases, so does the utility of words and phrases previously too narrowly tailored to be worth coining for use in geographically constrained communities.

On the basis of all that, I’m going to go out on a big crazy limb and make a long term prediction. We’ll see eventual convergence on a handful of primary world lanuages (probably English, Mandarin, and/or Spanish, or some pigdin thereof) with increasing fragmentation within each language, into a set of dialects. Many tiny satellites revolving around a common core. I’m just not sure whether this sort of prediction is hubristic and presumptuous, or too obvious to be worth mentioning.

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