Does language shape our economy? White Paper

Dr. Amir Shoham, Temple University
Published Date: 
1 Jul 2014

In his Nobel Prize lecture, Douglas North (1993) argued that cultural knowledge is transmitted via language. Yet, language may be more than a vehicle of transmission, as the linguist Benjamin L Whorf hypothesized (1956):
“We are inclined to think of language simply as a technique of expression, and not to realize that language first of all is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience which results in a certain world-order, a certain segment of the world that is easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs.”
Forefront research in evolutionary linguistics and cognitive science suggest that language is indeed the result of biological and cultural historical forces (Christiansen and Kirby 2003) and that it may influence cognition (Boroditsky et al. 2003).
If language captures speakers’ worldviews and/or influences their cognitive framework it may influence their decision-making processes as economic agents as well. What does the evidence tell us? Is the way we speak economically relevant?

While aspects of language such as vocabulary and slang may evolve rapidly as a result of socioeconomic forces and migration flows, in this column we analyze the most enduring feature of language, i.e. grammar. The grammatical features of a language are inherited from the distant past (thousands of years). Among the almost 200 grammatical features classified by linguists (The World Atlas of Language Structures) we study the most stable one, i.e. gender (Wichmann and Holman, 2009).

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