Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lingua Terra

Why can't we all just speak my language?
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The Economist recently had an interesting article reporting on the state of English as the lingua franca among global firms. This got me thinking about the old futurist idea of a world that operates on a single, global language (eliminating all others). What would be the costs and benefits of such a system?

Clearly the network efficiencies of a single language would be huge. There'd be radically less friction in all sorts of interactions, greatly reducing transaction costs. This would have an effect of bringing people into the global social, cultural, and economic marketplace who's current contributions aren't big enough to warrant translation. There's surely a lot of great minds and ideas in isolated communities that, given the opportunity, would flourish globally.

Usually when n=1 resilience concerns are apparent, and language is no different. Less language diversity would mean less experimentation, and a reduced quantity of different cognitive perspectives (we know language affects how people view the world).

A single language would have much less modularity, and be extremely sensitive to changes--good or bad. Some really disgusting new word (yolo!) would have few barriers preventing its global spread. This isn't a trivial concern: unjust cultural biases ingrained in language systems certainly exist. Putting all your eggs in one basket usually carries hidden tail risks.

On a global scale, eliminating translation and the ability to employ multiple languages would greatly reduce feedback. How would you know that a language institutionalizes certain cultural biases or cognitive styles without meta-reflection?

No doubt the optimal outcome is some multilingual mixture, which allows for the benefits of a global lingua franca while preserving some consolidated language diversity. Where the equilibrium settles with respect to minor languages--Icelandic has few speakers but seems durable--is an interesting question for computational linguistics.

1 comment:

  1. It is worth considering the worth of a sovereign language as a marker of cultural identity. Language is an important distinction in regards to culture; indeed, language dominance is a form of power and privilege. Historically, language assimilation is one of the first steps in cultural assimilation. Now, I understand that it is a slippery slope to try to equate global cultural heterogeneity with the pragmatic argument for a global lingua franca, but I think that it is important to remember how delicate the subject can be to smaller cultural populations around the world, many of whom risk assimilation.