Thinking about dominance of language and currency (Kindleberger edition)…

Timothy Taylor on his blog shares a superb paper by Charles Kindleberger.

Kindleberger was one of the few economists who wrote with lots of flair and clarity. His pieces were minus all the models and math jazz but were quite rigorous in their own way and made you think about several issues.

However, the analogy which interests me most is that between the use of the dollar in international economics and the use of the English language in international intercourse more generally. Analogies are tempting, and dangerous because frequently misleading. But the dollar “talks,” and English is the “coin” of international communication. The French like neither fact, which is understandable. But to seek to use newly-created international money or a newly-created international language would be patently inefficient.

Languages are ordered hierarchically. Like sterling, French used to dominate. Like the dollar, English does now. Frenchmen must learn English; it is not vital for Anglo-Saxons to learn French.

The analogy with the language quarrel in Belgium is exact. The Flemish must learn French, but the Walloons, despite their constitutional edict of equality between the languages and the legislative edict which requires civil servants to do so, do not learn or use Dutch. The Flemish are offended and begin to insist on Flemish, exactly as France has insisted that its representatives at international conferences, even when they know English perfectly, must speak only French and insist on all speeches in English being translated into French. The transactions costs of translation, including the misunderstanding in communication and the waste of time, are even more evident than the transactions costs of converting gold to dollars and dollars to gold, when it is dollars—not gold—that are necessary to transactions.  …

It is easy to imagine what is implied in a “sabotage” of French as a working language at the United Nations. Someone—presumably an Anglo-Saxon—at a working-committee meeting, observing that all the Francophones had a good command of English, suggested that the translation into French from English and possibly from French into English be dispensed with in the interest of efficiency. The transactions (translation) costs of simultaneous but especially of consecutive translation are high in efficiency, owing to loss of time or accuracy and of intimacy in two-way communication. It is highly desirable for Americans and British to know enough French, German, Italian, Spanish, and perhaps Russian to be able to receive in those languages, or some of them, even if they transmit only in English. But world efficiency is achieved when all countries learn the same second language, just as when the different nationalities in India use English as a lingua franca. …  One’s own currency is the native language, and foreign transactions are carried on in the vehicle currency of a common second language, the dollar.

It is hard on French, which used to be the language of diplomacy, to have lost this distinction; but it is a fact. In scientific writing, as in communication between international airplane and control tower, English is the universal language, except for the rescue call “Mayday” which … would have put in French as “M’aidez.” But a common second language is efficient, rather than nationalist or imperialist. 

Fascinating.

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