English and Math

These thoughts by David Henderson over at EconLog have stuck with me since the day I read them (in 2012):

At the end, one of two hosts [of a radio program he was being interviewed at] asked me, “If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?” I think he was expecting me to say “English and Chinese.” I answered, “Two languages: English and math.”

I think of this insight often when I read, mostly because they confirm my own anecdotal experiences travelling abroad. Everybody in Ghana spoke English, and only rural Iberians and Slovenians had trouble with English in Europe. Non-Native French speakers seem only to be in parts of France’s old empire, where old customs – learning the language of the conqueror to get ahead in the rat race – still prevail. English is learned because it’s necessary to communicate these days.

Check out this excerpt from a piece on Swiss language borders in the BBC:

There are four official Swiss languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, an indigenous language with limited status that’s similar to Latin and spoken today by only a handful of Swiss. A fifth language, English, is increasingly used to bridge the linguistic divide. In a recent survey by Pro Linguis, three quarters of those queried said they use English at least three times per week.

Read the rest. That’s a lot of English used in a country that’s sandwiched between Germany, France, and Italy. I think the power of English, at least in Europe, has to do with the fact that it’s a mish-mash of Germanic and Latin; it’s a “bastard tongue,” in the words of John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. Let’s hear it for the bastards of the world!

*The Islamic Enlightenment* | A critical review

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

Continue reading

Words on the Move

I just listened to a recent(ish) episode of Econ Talk: John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move.

I particularly enjoyed this episode because:

  1. Emergent order (duh!).
  2. It shed new light (for me) on a category of words that serve a function but don’t really mean anything. “Well” doesn’t really mean anything. Well, sometimes it means a hole filled with water, but in this sentence I’m using it as a “pragmatic.” Other pragmatics like eh, and huh feel like filler, but they’re really a part of oral communication where the speaker can casually and non-disruptively check in with the listener. Pretty cool, huh?
  3. And the discussion of accents was interesting in light of an experience I had just the other day. I’ll get to that at the bottom, but let me set the stage…

I’ve been particularly aware of my own accent since a young age because kids have always been quick to point out how different I’ve always sounded. At around age 7 I moved from the prairies to southern Ontario and I remember some kid asking me if I was British. They might have been picking up on regional variation in the Canadian accent, or it might be that my accent was affected by the movies and TV shows I had watched to that point (I suspect watching Monty Python at a young age deeply affected me).

Later (aged 17) I moved from Canada to Texas where I worked very hard to ditch my Canadian accent and gain some Southern drawl. When I moved to California I kept trying to lose the Canadian parts of my accent but gave up on trying to gain the drawl. When I moved to Boston I picked up some affectations that now makes me stand out on Long Island. I drink kahfee instead of quofee, but since I never did like the mwahll, my pronunciation of “mall” is probably the slightly-off version I would have picked up in my youth.

The other day I was talking to a student and noticed something especially bizarre–as our conversation moved from seafood (note to self: soak calamari in buttermilk for 3 days) to boar hunting I found myself involuntarily moving back into my Texas voice! (You’ve probably already guessed that this was an econometrics student.) I have zero experience with hunting, but I had to suppress this reflexive change in my accent. Somehow, all the automatic processes in my brain have lined up in such a way that made it clear that not only do I have a lot of tacit knowledge, but I even have unseen triggers for how I communicate.

Nazism: left or right?

One of the greatest controversies on the Brazilian internet these last few days was to define Nazism as either left-wing or right-wing. I even wrote something about it in Portuguese, and although I really tried my best not to be controversial, I was amazed by how divisive the issue seems to be. So here is my view on this issue, now in English.

Is Nazism a left or right wing political movement? The first thing I believe we need to consider to answer this question is what is right and left? The answer (surprisingly simple in my view) is that right and left are words. Words are signs we use to describe things, but as (I guess) most linguists will say, words don’t have any objective connection to the things they describe. For example, there’s no special connection between the word “cat” and that fluffy animal that drinks milk and chases rats. It is just a convention that in the English language we call that animal “cat,” and not “alligator” or “hot dog.”

However, when we say that there is no objective connection between words and stuff, that doesn’t mean that words are simply random. Words only work in a linguistic context, so there is no use calling a cat anything else if you want to communicate properly. The English language (as any other language, except for Esperanto) was not invented by any specific person. Languages are actually a spontaneous order, something that economists in the Austrian School really enjoy talking about. So, if you want to communicate well, you have to join the party (or the conversation).

With all that said, we need to admit that the word most often used to describe Nazism politically is right-wing. Actually, far-right. The point in discussion (that so many people in Brazil just don’t seem to get) is if this description makes any sense. You see, other groups classified as right-wing are conservatives and liberals (classical liberals, to be more precise). So the question is: why are conservatives, liberals and Nazis all classified as right-wing? What do all these groups have in common? Going back to the example of the cat, there is a reason why you can call both a lion and a tiger a cat (or a feline): they both share several characteristics. It may be just at the eye of the beholder (although evolutionary biologists will say something different), but a lion has much more to do with a tiger than with a frog. So it seems fair to include lions and tigers in a small group where frogs don’t belong. So, the question is: is it fair to include conservatives, classical liberals and Nazis in the same group? Why?

I know there are reasons why all these groups are generally classified together. I know that left and right are terms that go back to the French Revolution. I know how these terms are generally used. All I’m saying (with Friedrich Hayek, David Nolan, and many others) is that we should reconsider the way we typically classify political groups.

Dinosaurs were classified as reptiles. And then people realized they were closer to birds. I guess it was a shock when someone first said that a Velociraptor has more to do with a chicken than with a Komodo dragon, but it seems to me (as an outsider of paleontology) that this is common wisdom now. Similarly, maybe we should have the courage to reconsider the way we classify Nazis. Leftists, of course, won’t like this. But neither do conservatives like being called fascists. Are leftists tasting their bitter medicine? Maybe. But I believe they should give us a good explanation why Nazis should be considered right-wing. I haven’t heard any.

Freedom of Conscience and the Rule of Law

Of course the concept of “freedom of conscience” was forged in Europe by Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and many other philosophers. But the freedom of conscience as an individual right that belongs to set of characteristics which defines the rule of law is an American innovation, which later spread to Latin America and to the Old Continent.

This reflection comes from the dispute which has been aroused in Notes On Liberty about the Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience. Now, my intention is not to mediate between Mark and Bruno, but to bring to the Consortium a new line of debate. What I would like to polemize is what defines which rights to be protected by the rule of law. In this sense, might we regard a political regime that bans freedom of conscience as based on the rule of law? I am sure that no one would dare to do so. But, instead, would anyone dare to state that unification of language in a given country hurts the rule of law? I am afraid that almost nobody would.

Nevertheless, this is a polemical question. For example, the current Catalan independence movement has the language of Catalan as one of its main claims, so tracing the genealogy of the rights that constitutes the concept of rule of law is a meaningful task —and this is why the controversy over the Protestant Reformation and the origin of Freedom of Conscience at NOL is so interesting.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the theological, philosophical, scientific, and political language of Europe was unified in Latin. On the other hand, the languages used by the common people were utterly fragmented. A multiplicity of dialects were spoken all over Europe. The Catholic Kings of Spain, for example, unified their kingdom under the same religion, but they did not touch the local dialects. A very similar situation might be found in the rest of Europe: kingdoms with one religion and several dialects.

There was a strong reason for this to be so. Before the Medieval Ages Bibles in vernacular had existed, but the literacy rate was so low that the speed of evolution and fragmentation of the dialects left those translations obsolete and incomprehensible. Since printing books was extremely costly (this was before the invention of  the printing press), the best language to write and print books and constitutional documents was Latin.

The Evangelical movement, emerged out of the Protestant Reformation, meant that final authority of religion was not the Papacy any more but the biblical text. What changed was the coordination problem. Formerly, the reference was the local bishop, who was linked to the Bishop of Rome. (Although with the Counter-Reformation, in some cases, like Spain, the bishops were appointed by the king, a privilege obtained in exchange for remaining loyal to the Pope). On the other hand, in the Reformation countries, the text of the Bible as final authority on theological matters demanded the full command of an ability not so extended until that moment: literacy.

It is well-known that the Protestant Reformation and the invention of printing expanded the translations of the Bible into the vernacular. But always goes completely unnoticed that by that time the concept of a national language hardly existed. In the Reformist countries the consolidation of a national language was determined by the particular vernacular which was chosen to translate the Bible into.

Evidently, the extension of a common language among the subjects of a given kingdom had reported great benefits to its governance, since the tendency was followed by the monarchies of France and Spain. The former extended the Parisian French over the local patois and, in Spain of the XVIII Century, the Bourbon Reforms imposed Castilian as the national Spanish language. The absolute kings, who each of them had inherited a territory unified by a single religion, sowed the seeds of national states aggregated by a common language. Moreover, Catholicism became more dependent on absolute kings than on Rome —and that is why Bruno finds some Catholics arguing for the separation of Church from the state.

Meanwhile, in the New World, the Thirteen Colonies were receiving the European immigration mostly motivated on the lack of religious tolerance in their respected countries of origin. The immigrants arrived carrying with them all kind of variances of Christian confessions and developed new and unexpected ones. All those religions and sects had a common reference: the King James Bible.

My thesis is that it was the substitution of religion for language as the factor of cohesion and mechanism of social control that made possible the development of the freedom of conscience. The political power left what was inside of the mind of their subjects a more economical device: language. Think what you wish, believe what you wish, read what you wish, write what you wish, say what you wish, as long as I understand what you do and you can understand what I mean.

Moreover, an official language became a tool of accountability and a means of knowing the rights and duties of an individual before the state. The Magna Carta (1215) was written in Medieval Latin while the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), in English. Both documents were written in the language that was regarded as proper in their respective time. Nevertheless, the language which is more convenient to the individual for the defense of his liberties is quite obvious.

Often, the disputes over the genealogy of rights and institutions go around two poles: ideas and matter. I think it is high time to go along the common edge of both of them: the unintended consequences, the “rural nomos,” the complex phenomena. In this sense, but only in this sense, tracing the genealogy – or, better, the “nomology” – of the freedom of conscience as an intended trait of the concept of “rule of law” is worth our efforts.