Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Languages as marketplaces

Linguistics and Economics have something big in common, they both study things that human beings have built collectively. Like markets, languages mostly emerge out of lots of collective action, only rarely is there much scope for conscious design. A big exception (or a small one, depending on your point of view) is Esperanto, the hopeful artificial language that was intended to be independent of nations and nationalism.

The New Republic has an informative article about Esperanto's designer, L.L. Zamenhof , and the formative early years of the language: The amazing story of how Esperanto came to be.

Languages and their catchment areas seem like a fruitful area for more study by economists. Just as it is hard for new marketplaces to compete with large existing ones when there are network effects, it is hard for new languages to gain a foothold in the marketplaces that languages provide for their speakers, since the benefits of speaking a language depend so much on how many other people already speak it.


Brian Barker said...

Good luck to Esperanto :)

It's a pity that many people do not know that it has become a living language.

Your readers may be interested in

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

Tim Worstall said...

We could go a lot further than that too.

1) We've already got some sort of framework for deciding optimal currency areas. Should be readily transferable to optimal language areas (too wide an area, given that languages locally evolve, leads to a break up of that common language).

2) The areas with high numbers of languages (say, Papua New Guinea) are also those with very little trade. For the similar reasons of geographic isolation, one valley to the next even. So a lot of the work about the geogrpahy of trade would also be transferable.