I just completed my first guest blogging post over at mind x the + gap where I talked about the mutual history of language and commerce, as well as some thoughts on how that will continue into the future. Since the focus of Mil Joshi‘s blog is more towards psychology and economics, the following is a slight adaptation more in line with my normal content.
Commerce is a human convention deeply entwined with language. Economic motivations were among the many reasons ancient (and modern) empires conquered other lands, spreading their languages beyond their natural range. Traders would travel to distant lands, encountering speakers of exotic languages. And where two languages meet, words begin to exchange back and forth. In cases where bilingual speakers were few to none, Pidgin languages developed. Pidgins are languages with simplified grammar and vocabulary, and are never spoken as a first language. They come about as a means of communicating between speakers of different languages for the purpose of trade. When a Pidgin is spoken widely enough that children in the community grow up learning it as a first language, the language changes into a Creole. Creoles have many fascinating characteristics, but the point here is, commerce is a driving factor in their creation. When a conquering empire brings its own language, it either supplants the native language or influences it heavily. Pidgins, on the other hand, develop because speakers are motivated to communicate in order to trade.
Groups of speakers who remain in constant contact tend to speak the same dialect of a language. When a group breaks off and becomes isolated (contact with the original group is infrequent or not widespread), their dialects begin to diverge. Mass communication is changing this landscape, allowing larger and larger people groups to remain in constant contact. As a result, minority languages are being spoken even less in favor of popular languages. This process is called linguistic homogenization. If we follow the slippery slope to the extreme, eventually there will be a single language spoken by all people. This eventuality isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes, and not just because it requires almost all native speakers of a language to die out. A far more likely scenario is that a handful of commerce languages will be spoken by the vast majority of people. Commerce languages are popular languages people speak to do business in (English, Mandarin, etc).
There are many factors driving linguistic homogenization. Commerce is certainly one of them. In the modern world of the internet and mass media, attention is the scarce resource people are competing for. If you want to capture the attention of others, you need to maximize your reach and doing so typically means choosing a language of commerce. Minority languages present a barrier to the widest possible dissemination of information (except when the only intended audience are speakers of that language). The attention economy promotes linguistic homogenization.
Machine translation services, such as Google Translate, potentially have the power to change this. As the quality of these services improve, it becomes less and less necessary to publish exclusively in commerce languages. Linguistic homogenization may not be the inexorable force it appears to be today. Of course, the output of machine translation can be pretty abysmal. Will the quality of machine translation improve fast enough, and will the business case for them be strong enough to turn the tide of linguistic homogenization? Those betting on machine translation services surely hope so. But there is a dueling problem here. In order for machine translation to truly counteract linguistic homogenization, it has to be freely available (or ridiculously cheap). These systems are difficult to build and require great computational resources. The outcome will almost certainly be a matter of economics as well as science.
While the future progress of commerce and language may be uncertain, what is certain is that they will continue to heavily influence each other. And there’s nothing new about that.