Economics and language

Posted: 28 August 2010 in Uncategorized
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Like language in general, different economic languages influence how we think, because of what they habitually oblige us to think about.

Guy Deutscher offers the following example:

Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

By analogy, in economics, different languages—different theories or discourses—oblige us to think about certain things, and to think about them in certain ways. For example, the language of neoclassical economics obliges us to think about capitalism as a system that balances unlimited desires and limited means, while the language of Marxian economics obliges us to see and talk about a system based on exploitation, contradiction, and crisis.

Again, from Deutscher:

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

Moreover, the hegemony of one among many different economics languages (an issue Deutscher does not mention) means that, in the discipline, students and professors are obliged to think about certain things, and to think about them in certain ways. Such a language—for example, the language of neoclassical economics—becomes such a habit of mind that it appears to be a natural language, a description of the world as it actually is.

That’s the importance of examining the existence and effects of different languages in economics: it challenges the idea that all economists think in fundamentally the same way. It shows that the discipline of economics is actually a Tower of Babel, which some choose to ignore by imposing a single language on its practitioners and everyone else.

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