Language and Markets

by Bruce Walker

Language has always been the heart of markets. The interchange of information that allows bargains to be reached requires precision that custom cannot articulate. When the whole breadth of markets, rather than their narrow economic and financial aspects, are considered, the power of meaningful words become even more vital. Corn, olive oil, and wine may be measured and exchanged in barter or coin with grunts and nods, but what of love, literature, and philosophy?

Cyberspace and information technologies, if anything, accentuate the importance of language. Text, rather than images, moves faster and - if crafted well - communicates better than pixels of color, or modulations of tone and rhythm. While one word may not be worth a thousand pictures, the opposite isn't true either. We think in words, and as we think, therefore we are.

This is more true when we consider fully what language means. Phonetic text is certainly a form of language, and it combines the immortality of writing with the power of words. But ideographic writing has its own special power, flavored with the phonetic oral languages of China (and Sinic cultures). These distinctions channel the flow and possibilities of thought. Several decades ago, physicists of Western Civilization came to study more closely the non-phonetic script of Sinic Civilization, and to discover ways of "writing" concepts that they could not otherwise "write." And why not? Do any physicists, using the phonetic text of the West, pretend that they can describe the true weirdness of Quantum Mechanics? Those who say "yes" lie.

Written language reaches beyond even our alphabets or the ideas of Chinese symbols. Musical notes make the aural visual, and the notation systems invented by medieval composers have stretched across oceans of space and time. The language of equations and physics are still other forms of writing that seem almost indispensable to transporting theories and axioms from one mind to another. In returning to the counter-intuitive nature of subatomic physics, is it not at least as likely that the language of harmony, long ago plumbed by Pythagoras, is not the best language to describe the magical process of waves of potential existence?

And language is, of course, an art form itself - perhaps the most exquisite invented by our species. The pedestrian use of language in everyday life often prevents us from appreciating its vast power. Theologians and philosophers have not made that mistake. Those dead men who argued about a verse of the Vulgate, or a tiny bit of Torah, were the brightest lights, not the dimmest candles, of their age. Religion aside, the words of the Gospel of St. John are haunting: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Thoughtful pious and secular people alike can only to that verse respond: Amen.

The use and misuse of words in the realms of power, force, and discipline have not escaped those good and evil visionaries who have seen beyond the conventions of our species, and understand that words make and unmake almost all we cherish. Hitler, Lenin, and Mao absorbed that lesson well, as did Jefferson, Churchill, and Lincoln. If it does not chill one to contemplate the eerily prescience of Eric Blair (George Orwell), then one is already frozen insensate. Writers like Orwell and Bradbury understood that the very fabric of our existence rests upon a self-awareness which was in turn built out of language.

Small wonder, then, that language has played such a pivotal role in human markets. Small wonder that markets flourish where language is valued. And small wonder that those who have seen or stumbled onto this pivotal role of language in the operation of markets, have flourished.

Consider stereotypical "success" stories - Jews, Calvinists (Swiss, Scottish, Dutch, Huguenot, Bohemian) and also Atlantic Europeans, Sinic groups (Chinese and Japanese, particularly) - and the vital role of language in the daily lives of all these otherwise different groups.

Devout Jews are enjoined to study the Torah in Hebrew, and so become literate in a phonetic text; Jews of the Diaspora have likewise been compelled by circumstance to know colloquial Jewish languages (Yiddish or Ladino), and to know the language of their host land as well (Polish, Italian, German, Russian, etc.) Ancient and powerful social conventions that compel literacy and multilingualism among ordinary folk almost insures complexity and means of expression absent in other social groups.

Calvinists were also compelled to be literate, often in that magnificent conglomeration of different tongues and conquered cultures known as English. By chance or by choice, Calvinists tended to flourish in places demanding multilingual skills as well. Scots spoke English and Gaelic; Swiss spoke French, German, and Italian; Dutch generally knew English and German, and perhaps Spanish and French as well. Even colonists to the New World were compelled to master languages to live. Like Jews, these peoples could usually find many words in different languages with subtle differences in meaning, and so used language like a sniper and not a blunderbuss.

The unquestionable achievements of China and Japan also rested much on language, but not in exactly the same way. Literacy was often much more difficult to reach (Confucian analects and bureaucratic examinations were intellectually challenging, but in different ways than in the Judeo-Christian West). The attainment of literacy, however, guaranteed a fine mind, and insured communication with other fine minds as well. In this way, the bureaucracies of the great land of China resembled in many ways a university faculty lounge, with all the good and bad that brings.

China, Korea, and Japan, however, had the same edge that Europe (particularly the Atlantic coastal peoples and riverine areas of northern Europe) possessed: constant commerce, often with those with different words for different things. In this respect, the popular impression of China as a monolithic culture is, of course, false. A Cantonese merchant would have the same problems communicating with a shopkeeper in Harbin as, say, a Danish sailor with a Breton wine merchant.

But the overriding power that Sinic culture provided to Far East Asians to communicate reasonably well (the Cantonese merchant did sell his wares in Harbin, and the Dane got his cask of French wine), has counterparts in Hebrew and Yiddish among Jews of the Medieval world, and in English in the modern world - first as inhabitants of the vast Anglo-American global hegemon, and then in cyberspace itself (where English has become the lingua franca - the French tongue written in Latin, but comprehended nonetheless).

All of which drives home the insidious damage caused by pidgin English, functional illiteracy, and provincial perspectives, on human civilization. The barriers to entry that incompetence with written and oral language brings cannot be overwhelmed by the best intentioned programs. The bigotry of nominal prejudice and its impact on the markets of human interaction which drive success in commerce, art, science, romance, and social joy, is trivial when compared with the impact of googly video pabulum and the narrow pidgin English of the intellectually dispossessed.

The old maxim about the relative values of the gifts of giving fish and teaching fishing apply to the narrow confines of vocational education. But as those peoples who have largely conquered the world without arms can show, the greatest gift is to teach a man to read and write well in the languages of words, music, math, science, and the languages of other peoples. Knowledge is more than power - it is wealth, health, and happiness as well. Language is the way in which we enter that vast market of human interactions, without which life is all animal and instinct, and enrich ourselves in ways that wordless ones cannot dream.

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