Around 7,000 languages are spoken on Earth 1.0. (Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “What Would Be the Best Universal Language? (Earth 2.0 Series).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
We explore votes for English, Indonesian, and … Esperanto! The search for a common language goes back millennia, but so much still gets lost in translation. Will technology finally solve that?
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
In our previous episode, we talked about living under the ancient curse of the Tower of Babel.
Esther SCHOR: The curse of Babel is an existential condition in which we live every day. We use language to communicate, but we cannot rely on it to make ourselves understood.
We can’t always rely on it because …
John McWHORTER: Well, we have 7,000 languages.
Seven thousand languages? We learned about the many costs associated with this linguistic diversity — financial costs, psychic costs, even war:
Shlomo WEBER: Many people died in the war, which, in fact, easily could have been avoided.
And we learned that linguistic diversity has plenty of benefits too:
Lera BORODITSKY: There are certainly claims about types of thinking that become very hard without language — or become unlikely without language.
Those are some of the things we know about language here on Earth 1.0. But today’s episode is part of our Earth 2.0 series, in which we imagine we could reboot the planet and do some optimizing — or at least some tidying up. So, if we were starting over …
Maria Luisa MACIEIRA [French]: Si on devait tout recommencer à zéro…
Kew PARK [Korean]: … t시 시작한다면…
Isabela CABRAL [Brazilian Portuguese]: Se fossemos começar de novo …
Dhari ALJUTAILI [Arabic]:… أحسن طريقة لكل الناس على الأرض انهم…
CABRAL [Brazilian Portuguese]: para todos na Terra se comunicarem uns com os outros?
PARK [Korean]: 가장 좋은 방법은 무엇일까요?
… what would be the best way for everyone on Earth to be able to communicate with one another?
* * *
In the future, human-to-human communication may be so different that it’ll render our mission today moot. Between auto-translation and artificial intelligence and maybe even mind-melding, will anything ever get lost in translation? Maybe; maybe not. But — that’s the future. Let’s talk about language on Earth 2.0 using the tools and knowledge at our disposal today. If we could start from scratch, what would that look like?
Michael GORDIN: If we did this from scratch it would be a very surprising outcome.
That’s Michael Gordin, a historian of science at Princeton.
GORDIN: And who knows how it would work without the path dependency of previous empires, current economic structures, our current modes of transportation and media and communication? It would be very interesting to see how that would shake out.
Okay, let’s start with a couple basic questions. Number one: should we consider — please don’t throw things at me — should we consider having one common language?
BORODITSKY: I would be wary of thinking of common language as the solution to perfect communication …
Lera Boroditsky is a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego.
BORODITSKY: … because we already have [a] common language and that doesn’t lead to perfect communication.
McWHORTER: You would need oddly a language that had a lot less in it than many people would expect.
John McWhorter is a linguist at Columbia; he’s also an author and host of the Lexicon Valley podcast.
McWHORTER: You want it to be something that’s maximally easy for all of the world’s language speakers to use. You could have a universal language where tense was largely left to context, as it is in a great many of the world’s normal languages. You certainly wouldn’t have anything like grammatical gender. The vocabulary could be quite rich. That would be fun, but the grammar would be something where you could pick it up in a week.
Stephen J. DUBNER: I’m curious to know the degree to which language generally is utilitarian, like, “I want to pick up that thing,” or transactional, “I want that thing from you.” or romantic, or relationship, or gossip, or lying, and so on. And I’m just curious how a linguist might think about that.
McWHORTER: Language is more than questions, commands, and certainly more than just naked statements. Real language is about communication and charting feelings, telling people new things and that means that a language is a whole lot more than just nouns, verbs, and adjectives. If somebody says, “Oh, she’s totally going to call you,” that “totally” means, “you and I both know that other people think she isn’t going to call, but we have reason to think that she is.” We are full of things like that.
Okay, this leads to question number two: if there were a universal language, should it be a pre-existing one, or an invented one? English, while hardly universal, has of course become a very powerful language.
McWHORTER: What makes this regrettable to many, and quite understandably, is that English was the vehicle of a rapaciously imperial power and now America is the main driver.
So any pre-existing language will come with baggage, with lots of votes for and against. Does this mean we’d be better off inventing a new one? Apparently, some Facebook bots recently gave it a try.
CBS NEWS: According to several reports, Facebook’s artificial intelligence researchers had to shut down two chatbots after they developed a strange English shorthand.
A shorthand that its human creators couldn’t understand. As it happens, the dream of inventing a universal language has long been pursued by scholars, priests, even — as you’ll hear — by an ophthalmologist.
SCHOR: The history of language invention, which goes back millennia, has to do with reversing the curse of Babel.
Esther Schor is a professor of English at Princeton.
SCHOR: In other words, to return the world to a single language of perfect understanding. For some language inventors, this was imagined to be God’s own language and the language of divine truth.
In the 13th century, for instance, Ramon Llull, a Majorcan philosopher with Franciscan ties, sought to create the perfect language for channeling “the Truth,” and converting people to Christianity.
SCHOR: He created a formula for generating propositions from letters and words. He felt that some of them would be propositions to which an infidel would, of necessity, have to consent. But Llull’s truth was not the Truth, or at least it didn’t seem like the truth to the Saracens who eventually murdered him.
A few centuries later, the German philosopher Leibniz— an admirer of Llull’s, by the way — tried to build a language based on logic.
SCHOR: Leibniz’s idea was to represent propositions by numbers and he would reason by getting the ratio of one proposition to another and calculate an answer. Again, we have the idea of a language of logic without words.
And in the 19th century, a Jewish ophthalmologist named Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof created a language both idealistic and pragmatic.
L. L. Zamenhof, or Doktoro Esperanto, invented Esperanto in 1887. (Photo: Wikimedia)
SCHOR: It’s called Esperanto because that was his pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto, which means the hopeful one. He brags in this initial pamphlet that you can learn it in an afternoon and that it’s fun. So it was supposed to be easy to learn and easy to pronounce.
Esperanto was derived from various European roots. Zamenhof’s idea was not to have Esperanto displace other languages.
SCHOR: He called it a helping language or an auxiliary language. It would stand next to national languages and be a helping language to make bonds among people who were not like one another.
Zamenhof was a universalist …
SCHOR: But he was also a universalist who understood what it meant to have warm feelings for one’s people. Esperanto was to somehow reconcile those two things — to try to breed in us these feelings of attachment for other people who were really quite unlike us.
The larger goal of Esperanto was nothing less than world peace.
SCHOR: He knew that language could be a wall between ethnicities, but that it could also be a bridge. That was his motivation — to build a language that would be a bridge among ethnicities. He modeled it on the teaching of Hillel. “Do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you.” Hillel was a 1st-century rabbi, so it had a very Jewish cast to it.
This did not help Esperanto’s cause. As Esther Schor told us: “[A]nti-Semitism changed the fortunes of Esperanto when the French demanded that Zamenhof shear away its religious ideology.” Hitler and Stalin would also reject Esperanto. Regardless: if you remove its religious and utopian components, what’s left, Esther Schor says, is a language with some substantial benefits over many other languages, whether existing or invented.
SCHOR: What he wanted was maximal flexibility and simplicity. For one thing, the verbs are all regular in Esperanto. He wanted a language that was egalitarian and neutral. He didn’t want people to be disadvantaged because they weren’t a native speaker. He speaks very movingly about what it’s like to try to speak a language that’s not your own. He talks about his pulse racing and his palms sweating. It’s an experience I’ve had. Perhaps you have had it also.
Ruth KEVESS-COHEN: Esperanto is a lot easier to learn than other languages because it has very regular rules and very regular grammar.
That’s Ruth Kevess-Cohen. She helped develop an online Esperanto course for the language site Duolingo.
KEVESS-COHEN: You find that it’s taking you a lot less time than you thought to learn the language. Here’s a sentence in Esperanto. “Mi estas knabo” — “I am a boy.” There is no “a” in Esperanto. “Knabo” is a noun because it has an ‘o’ at the end. Every noun ends in the letter ‘o,’ every adjective ends in the letter ‘a.’ Every verb in the present ends in ‘as,’ So you already know that “estas” is “am,” “are.” It’s the same. There’s no conjugation of that.
We spoke with Kevess-Cohen at this year’s Esperanto-USA National Congress — or Landa Kongreso, as you say it in Esperanto. Our producer Stephanie Tam spent a couple days there. You’ll hear about that in an upcoming special episode. You may be surprised to learn that Esperanto is still spoken. Esther Schor again:
SCHOR: These days, the most informed estimates I hear are several hundred thousand people speak Esperanto. The strength of Esperanto is not in numbers. The strength of Esperanto is in its continuity over 130 years in 62 countries, from generation to generation, without being passed down from generation to generation.
Still, for all its thoughtfulness and pragmatism, Esperanto never got anywhere close to its intended universal status — what Esperantists refer to as “La Fina Venko,” the “Final Victory.” Why not?
SCHOR: I can answer that by looking at what does look like a universal language in our world, which is English. What looked like a universal language in Zamenhof’s day was French. Both French and English were propelled into the world by commerce and armies, and Esperanto had neither of those.
GORDIN: In order to keep a language constant enough so that it can function as a global, universal language, the way English is functioning now, you need to have a global communications infrastructure that standardizes dialects and pronunciations.
Michael Gordin again.
GORDIN: You need to have a global entertainment industry that produces books with standard spelling, and a pattern of accents that are considered acceptable, or that mark different classes or regional identities, and that constant reinforcement requires an infrastructure.
It’s something we don’t think about — at least I’d never thought about it — but there’s a lot of upkeep associated with language.
GORDIN: When classical Chinese was being used as a lingua franca for a very broad region — it was used in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam as the language of written communication — a very strict civil-service exam system privileged learning the language to precision. That stabilized that language. To a certain extent the Anglophone entertainment publication and media industry, as well as the scientific institutions, stabilize a certain kind of global English now.
Gordin points to another factor that would make it hard to install a universal language: the nature of language itself.
GORDIN: The reason why I think you can’t just blanket install and say, “OK, everybody is going to learn Esperanto,” is because people will experiment and mess with the language. They’ll change it.
Which, by the way, is how we got to where we are today.
McWHORTER: Well, we have 7,000 languages.
John McWhorter, from Columbia.
McWHORTER: And language is inherently changeable not because change is swell but because as you use a language over time and you pass it on to new generations, brains tend to start hearing things slightly differently than they were produced and after a while, you start producing them that way. That is as inherent to language as it is inherent for clouds to change their shapes. It isn’t that that happens to some languages and not others. That’s how human speech goes.
DUBNER: All right, so imagine in our thought experiment now that we’ve got Earth 2.0. You’ve got seven, eight billion people. Let’s say we want to give everybody the most prosperity and opportunity and equity that’s possible. We make you the Chief, let’s say, Communications Adviser of Earth 2.0. We give you the task of writing the plan, the blueprint for creating from scratch our new language systems and institutions. What would that blueprint look like?
McWHORTER: I would say that an ideal, in the future, is that everybody in the world can communicate in one language, that people have another language that they use with their ingroup, and that we have as many of those languages as possible. I don’t think that it’s going to be another six thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine, ever. But there does need to be one language that everybody uses so that as many people in the world as possible can take advantage of economic benefits, such as they are.
WEBER: I would go with a global language on some higher level …
That’s Shlomo Weber, an economist who studies language.
WEBER: … but still keeping the local language for everybody, because sensibilities of the people [are] a very important thing.
DUBNER: Let’s say this Earth 2.0 experiment, just to be a little more realistic, that we’re still working with the resources we’ve got. In other words, the languages that exist now would still exist. English obviously has a big head start, but it obviously also comes with a lot of baggage, right? People learn English because it’s useful, but English has a history of colonialism and domination and so on. Would picking a language like English just doom it to failure?
WEBER: I don’t know. Most of the languages, maybe except Chinese, have the history of domination too.
DUBNER: Does that mean you’re nominating Chinese because they took the Middle Kingdom route and they never really tried?
WEBER: Definitely would be one of the leading languages. Absolutely. But we could have chosen six or seven. To choose one, it’s a very difficult thing. Of course, the colonial legacy of English is questionable. But it’s true for so many others — the history of Russian language, of Japanese, of French, of German, Turkish empire had also its ups and downs. But given our circumstances … English. A reluctant vote for English.
McWHORTER: I almost wish that there was some reason that everybody had to learn colloquial Indonesian. It’s the only language I’ve ever encountered where you can learn a whole bunch of words and, even though you’re going to sound like an idiot, you can get an awful lot done. You don’t sound nearly as much like an idiot stringing together your Lonely Planet words in many parts of Indonesia. There’s no such thing as the moon being a girl and a boat being a boy. None of those things that make languages hard to learn. Really — almost none! I thought this should be the world’s universal language. Indonesian is one of those languages, like English, which has been learned by so many different people speaking so many different languages that it’s relatively user-friendly as languages go.
DUBNER: You’ve argued that isolation in a language breeds complexity. Considering that English is the least isolated language there is these days — it’s everywhere — does that necessarily mean that it will or is becoming less complex, to make it accessible to newer users all over the world?
McWHORTER: It doesn’t mean that but only because this business of languages being more complex when they’re isolated, and becoming simpler when they’re spoken by a lot of adults, is largely something that happens before widespread literacy. English didn’t become relatively user-friendly because of the Bosnian cabdriver in New York. It happened when Scandinavian Vikings flooded Britain and learned bad old English but were dominant enough that generations started speaking the way they did. That became the language. You and I, right now, are speaking really crappy old English. And we feel fine about it.
DUBNER: Speak for yourself. I feel I’ve been pretty literate today. See, I didn’t use the right word for literate. Literate is written, right? I can’t even think of the right word for what I’m trying to say. What do you call it when I’m being …
McWHORTER: Articulate, I suppose.
DUBNER: Articulate. I couldn’t even come up with that. That’s how bad … I know you’re right. I just proved your point. You know what that was? That was Muphry’s Law. Do you know Muphry’s Law?
McWHORTER: No, what’s that?
DUBNER: Muphry’s law is whenever you try to correct someone’s mistake, you make an additional mistake.
McWHORTER: I didn’t know there was a name for that.
DUBNER: There is because our language is so rich, of course …
MCWHORTER: It is exactly that.
As rich as our language may be, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Coming up after the break: let’s say we bit the bullet and went with English as our universal language. How could it be made more accessible and equitable?
McWHORTER: Easy, magic wand: something that we must get rid of is linguistic prescriptivism.
And: let’s not overlook how much technology is already changing our communication.
GORDIN: It’s not going to be a Babel fish that you stick in your ear and will translate everything immediately. But it does improve the possibilities of translating roughly between language groups.
* * *
On Earth 2.0, it might be nice if all seven-plus billion of us spoke one shared language — and then, as John McWhorter suggested …
McWHORTER: … and then people have another language that they use with their ingroup and that we have as many of those languages as possible.
This, McWhorter says, is pretty close to the way a lot of people already communicate.
McWHORTER: If you think about the typical person who speaks Arabic, for example. They almost certainly speak two different languages. There is the Arabic that we would learn in a book, and then there’s Moroccan Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Sudanese Arabic, Libyan Arabic. Those are completely different languages from Standard Arabic — different basic words, different grammatical constructions. You grow up speaking your Libyan Arabic — that’s mommy’s language. Then, when you go to school, you learn something that often I’ve heard people from these countries also call Arabic and that’s this other language. That happened because of history, because of cultural history in the case of Arabic, the Quran. The religious unity of the nations has a lot to do with it, but ideally nobody would have to go to school to “learn Arabic.” That is going on in many South Asian countries. It’s what a typical African often has to go through. Or if you’re Sicilian, you speak Sicilian. You go to school and you learn Italian.
Okay, fine but then there’s the task of selecting the universal language. Michael Gordin of Princeton:
GORDIN: Even if we picked a universal language that was neutral, politics being what it is — and I doubt this could be engineered away — we’d find ways to particularize the previously general.
McWHORTER: It’d be interesting if there was some sort of academy that were designed to keep people from making it more complicated …
DUBNER: I love that the linguist is coming up with The Academy to Keep Language from Becoming More Complicated. You guys are the ones that have contributed, obviously, to the way we think about language as so complicated.
McWHORTER: See, we contain multitudes.
It might be helpful to look at some of the countries that already use formulas calling for two or three languages.
WEBER: The Indians, actually. In some other countries, in Nigeria, Kazakhstan. They tried to implement this formula.
The economist Shlomo Weber.
WEBER: They tried to combine all these things. Every child has to study his own language, English, and the language of the other part of the country. Everything beautiful. You bring national cohesiveness, you bring efficiency through English, and you still sustain your individual languages, your individual attachments, your identification. But it didn’t work, because the people didn’t accept this formula. Why didn’t [they] accept it? Because their attachment to home language was much stronger than doing anything else.
DUBNER: I thought that Kazakhstan worked better than, let’s say, India or Nigeria. What did Kazakhstan do, or what happened there that made it work better?
WEBER: They have a strong government there. But in the case of Kazakhstan, I think the people were convinced that this is right way to go. In Kazakhstan, with its oil and gas resources, English is very important to be a part of the international community. Of course, [the] Kazakh language is important, it’s their own language, but they also recognize that for [the] cohesiveness of the country, Russian is an important language.
DUBNER: But you’re also suggesting that authoritarianism is handy if you want to get everybody to speak the three languages, yeah? Because democracy is a little sloppier.
WEBER: A little sloppy in this regard, right. Some other advantages, but not that.
To be fair, there are a lot of differences between Kazakhstan and India. India is much larger, much more diverse. Even so, says Michael Gordin …
GORDIN: You have to give people a reason to want to engage with the language. The energy required to learn a language is high enough that you really have to work on the motivation. The constructed languages and the natural languages provide lots of examples of the importance of that.
OK, so how do you get people to engage with a language? As we’ve seen on Earth 1.0, most of the big, legacy languages come with a lot of baggage — cultural baggage at least; more likely, colonialist baggage. So what would happen if we chose English as the new universal language? I mean, with 1.5 billion speakers, it’s already 20 percent of the way there. What would you do to make English truly accessible to everyone, especially non-native speakers?
McWHORTER: Something that we must get rid of is linguistic prescriptivism, and by that, I mean that we live with an idea that some ways of speaking a language are bad, broken, and some ways aren’t. It’s all based on myths. That’s not to say that in a formal situation you can get up and say, “Billy and me went to the store.”
GORDIN: In the 19th century, the standard by which people had to know a language, a foreign language that wasn’t their own — so let’s for the moment pretend like everybody in the world speaks French, English, or German. You had to be really fluent in one of those three but only pretty competent in the others. A much weaker level of fluency. The French person didn’t have to know a lot of English but they had to be able, with a dictionary, to puzzle their way through a scientific article. You could relax the assumption that everything has to be perfect grammar-book English and just allow the publication of rougher English in a variety of forms, without this obsessive copyediting. That would be fairer.
McWHORTER: There are some kinds of English that would be so difficult for anybody else to understand that maybe there would have to be some adjustment. But schematically, the idea that most people in most nations have to learn a form of what they speak that requires effort to master — that’s crummy.
GORDIN: You could imagine subsidizing global English education. Another fair option is to say, “No, we actually really like the highly-readable, clean English.” You could charge slightly higher page fees for native speakers of English that would subsidize copy-editing for non-native speakers of English.
SCHOR: The most important thing would be to provide incentives for linguistic innovation, or for bringing language and the arts together, for bringing language and engineering together. This would have to come from some organization or donors, of course. But that’s as much of an institution as I would like to imagine negotiating language in Earth 2.0.
WEBER: I would like to have peace on this planet and then to approach those things.
DUBNER: What do you think would be a better way for everyone in the world to learn English? I’m especially curious to know, as an economist, what you think is the R.O.I. on an education dollar versus an entertainment dollar. In other words, would it be better just to have all Hollywood movies distributed globally for free? Would that be the best way for people to learn English?
WEBER: It could be the case. Once again, [the] example of India, Bollywood movies have contributed to [the] tremendous development of Hind[i] …The language was not spoken very widely in India, before the development of Bollywood.
DUBNER: Maybe even five years from now a technology like movies will seem very old-fashioned because there may be technology that’s essentially instant and perfect translation from any language to any language, right?
WEBER: Of course, technology will play a part.
GORDIN: Machine translation, I think, will never be perfect. It’s not going to be a Babel fish that you stick in your ear and will translate everything immediately. But it does improve the possibilities of translating roughly between language groups.
“It’s not going to be a Babel fish” — the Babel fish is from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by the way — “that you stick in your ear and will translate everything immediately.” Maybe not — but maybe. A New York startup called Waverly Labs has been working on a Babel fish-like earbud that’ll do live translation. They say they’ve already taken in $5 million in pre-orders. There’s also the rapidly developing Google Translate and Skype Translator. And it’s not just major languages that benefit from the digital revolution.
SCHOR: I don’t think there’s any doubt that technology has been a great boon to Esperanto …
Esther Schor again.
SCHOR … and I know many Esperantists, especially in the United States, who essentially live their Esperantic lives online. Some of them Skype, some of them do it on Facebook. LERNU.net has several hundred thousand registered users and there’s also Duolingo, which in the past two years since its inception, it has signed on about a million people into the Esperanto course, which is really amazing and marvelous.
But overall, the internet is dominated by what John McWhorter calls the big-dude languages, especially English. Google searches in English return roughly four times more results than Arabic searches; 95% of Wikipedia concepts are represented in fewer than six languages. There is of course no guarantee that this march toward English hegemony continues. History shows us that language is inherently mutable. So what can we assume about the future of language?
GORDON: Since we’re not changing the biology of humans, we can assume a couple of things …
Michael Gordin, the historian of science from Princeton.
GORDIN: … that people will learn languages; that they’ll learn them pretty well when they’re kids; and that languages won’t stay stable. If you want a more broadly-communicative, more inclusive infrastructure, you should focus on training children while they’re young and still able to learn multiple different languages and keeping them straight. In the 19th century, in Bohemia, the Czech region of the Habsburg Empire, it was quite common for neighboring peasant villages, one of which was predominantly German-speaking and one of which was predominantly Czech-speaking, to send kids to be educated in the other town. That way the kid would know both languages. Leveraging the way children can soak up languages almost effortlessly, to create a more dense web of people who understand each other’s languages, would improve some aspects of the system.
But here’s the thing. However judiciously we might draw up the best course of language for Earth 2.0, the original blueprint is unlikely to hold. Language evolves, it diverges; it constantly sparks its own offshoots. Consider a recent group of languages that were created from scratch.
Brian KERNIGHAN: Computer languages are very definitely created. And so somebody sits down and says, “this is the way we want to have our language work.”
Brian Kernighan is a computer-science professor at Princeton. He used to work at Bell Labs, the famous incubator of various operating systems and coding languages. Kernighan himself worked on the UNIX OS and the languages AWK and AMPL. The first major programming languages were invented in the late 1950s.
KERNIGHAN: The first high-level languages, I would say, would fundamentally be Fortran, COBOL, BASIC, and a language called ALGOL — which was in some sense more an academic exercise.
These languages were built for different tasks:
KERNIGHAN: Like scientific and engineering computation, which was Fortran; or business computation, which was COBOL; or even educational computation, if you like, which was BASIC. They’re definitely created for a purpose as opposed to being a natural process. On the other hand, once they’re created, then there’s a pressure for them to evolve.
Just a few years later, in 1961 …
KERNIGHAN: In 1961, a professional journal called Communications of the ACM in their January issue had a cover piece of art, which showed a schematic version of the Tower of Babel. It listed on that probably 200 programming languages. The message was, “Boy, there’s a lot of programming languages.”
Today, there are at least 1,500 programming languages.
KERNIGHAN: Do we need that many languages? Of course not. Do we use that many languages? Actually, no. The repertoire of most journeymen programmers is probably half a dozen to a dozen or something like that.
The parallel between programming languages and natural languages is not perfect, but still striking. A new language costs time, effort, and money to create, to learn, to maintain. Why, then, has there been so much growth?
KERNIGHAN: People are trying to write bigger programs, and they’re trying, often, to address programming problems. That is, taking on tasks that were not part of the original. Therefore the language evolves because the environment in which it lives is changing, the resources that are available for programmers — that is, hardware resources — are changing, and the desires of the people who write programs change as well.
GORDIN: Or an optimist would say developing into varieties of pronunciations and accents display the diversity of who we are.
Michael Gordin, speaking now about natural languages.
GORDIN: That process we’ve seen over world history many times: things fragment, then they coalesce, and then they fragment, and they coalesce again. Part of that has to do with tribal tendencies. Part of it has to do with a love of experimentation, regional loyalty, something that sounds aesthetically interesting. You could end up with something like a guy writing a poem in the late medieval period in the Tuscan dialect, Dante, producing a standard for a language by the act of his particularity.
This kind of change can create chaos. But: it’s also a hallmark of being human — a dissatisfaction with the status quo; a desire to experiment, to build, to adapt to changing circumstances.
BORODITSKY: We’re champions in the animal world at creating our own niches, taking the environment that we’re given, and then radically transforming it to suit our needs.
That’s the cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky.
BORODITSKY: And we do this with language as well.
And what is Boroditsky’s vision for language on Earth 2.0?
BORODITSKY: My emphasis would be on preserving diversity and preserving flexibility — making things really easy to learn and really adaptable to environment — rather than focusing on making something that is exactly the same and common across everyone. I don’t know that we can judge that we now have the best solution, and we should just build it right in. I’d still want people to learn lots of things through cultural transmission and adjust to their environment, the way that we do so well as humans. In some ways, becoming more aware of the relationship that we have with language is the thing that helps communication — more than simply trying to build one system.
It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that just about everyone we’ve heard from in this series on language has been … an academic. They, like all tribes, have their own dialects and sublanguages. Which is often not all that decipherable to the rest of us. I asked Shlomo Weber about this. He’s an economist.
WEBER: At the moment, I’m the director of the New Economic School in Moscow.
DUBNER: I have to tell you. I love academia. I love academics. I love the research you do. But my one big complaint is this: the way that you academics communicate to the rest of us, to the non-academics, is terrible. I understand these are areas of technical expertise but this strikes me as its own little Tower of Babel, where there are academic researchers all over the world doing this amazing and valuable research — which by the way is often funded by us, the taxpayers. And yet, we can’t really participate in it because of the way that you all communicate. I’m curious to know if we can’t solve the language or communication problem globally, if we could at least address this problem.
WEBER: Believe me, Stephen, I agree with you. I am doing my small part. I tried to write in newspapers, I go on television to talk about general things and not using the language. But it comes back to economics. There are incentives, and the incentives are not to go to tell you about this research. There is nothing in my incentive mechanism, what [my] university or community offers me, to go to talk to people who are interested in some simplified version of this research. For this, you really need to grow as an individual and to understand that, indeed, the research is supported by your dollars.
DUBNER: I will say this: honestly, as much as I complain about the gap, I’m grateful for it because I wouldn’t have a job if you guys communicated directly to people. Basically, I am the translator. So keep doing what you’re doing, Shlomo.
WEBER: Thank you. And you, Stephen, keep doing what you’re doing.
Coming up next time …
MACIEIRA [Brazilian Portuguese]: Isso vem no próximo episódio.
Oleg IVANOV [Russian]: Это будет в следующем выпуске.
Anisa SILVIANA [Bahasa Indonesia]: Yang akan datang selanjutnya.
Justin CHOW [Mandarin]: 在下一集.
Rendell de KORT [Papiamento]: … sigi proximo.
Larry Summers is a Harvard economics professor but he’s also a former president of Harvard, a former Secretary of the Treasury, and he was the chief White House economist under Obama when the Great Recession hit. What was that like?
SUMMERS: It was a very tense time. We would meet with the President each morning and talk about what was happening.
Summers gives himself and his team a crisis grade:
SUMMERS: While battlefield medicine’s never perfect, I think you’d have to say that the approach we chose was effective.
Summers also sort-of admits a past policy mistake.
SUMMERS: Perhaps, given what happened, you can say it was a mistake.
Summers also reveals — big surprise — that he is not a fan of the current White House.
SUMMERS: It’s the disregard for ascertainable fact and disregard for analysis of the consequences of policy actions.
That’s next time …
MACIEIRA [French]: Ca, ça viendra dans le prochain épisode …
Dayana MUSTAK [Bahasa Malaysia]: Episod seterusnya dalam Radio Freakonomics.
SCHOR [Esperanto]: Tiu venas venontfoje ĉe Freakonomics Radio.
Also: look for our upcoming special episode, with producer Stephanie Tam, about modern-day Esperanto. Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Stephanie Tam. Our staff also includes Alison Hockenberry, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Eliza Lambert, Emma Morgenstern, Harry Huggins, and Brian Gutierrez; we had help this week from Sam Bair. Special thanks to our intern Kent McDonald — and to the many listeners who contributed their voices, and their languages, to this episode. The music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Kim LE [Vietnamese]: Xin cảm ơn rất nhiều.
Hagit SALTZBERG [Hebrew]: תודה רבה
SILVIANA [Bahasa Indonesia]: Terima kasih.
ALJUTAILI [Arabic]: شكراً جزيلاً
MACIEIRA [Brazilian Portuguese]: Muito obrigada.
Mara DAJVSKIS [Latvian]: Liels paldies.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language by Esther Schor (Metropolitan Books, 2016).
- Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research by Scott Montgomery and David Crystal (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
- The Evolution of Language by W. Tecumseh Fitch (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
- Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language by Dean Falk (Basic Books, 2009).
- How Many Languages Do We Need?: The Economics of Linguistic Diversity by Victor Ginsburgh and Shlomo Weber (Princeton University Press, 2011).
- “How Language Shapes Thought,” by Lera Boroditsky, Scientific American (2011).
- “Linguistic Distance: A Quantitative Measure of the Distance Between English and Other Languages,” Barry Chiswick and Paul Miller (2004).
- Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English by Michael Gordin (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
- The Story of Human Language, Part 1 by John McWhorter (Teaching Company, 2004).
- “What is Universal in Event Perception? Comparing English and Indonesian Speakers,” Lera Boroditsky, Wendy Ham, and Michael Ramscar (2002).
- “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” Steven Pinker, The Chronicle Review (September 26, 2014).
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