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Language, Commerce, and Google Translate

WILL DURANT CHRONICLED IN HIS HISTORICAL COMPILATIONS THAT ancient trade provided the necessity for the invention of the alphabets. A theory contested by many, but not rejected in its entirety.

In this guest post, my friend and Language Technology researcher Jason M. Adams discusses the mutual history of language and commerce by looking at some of the ways that each has been changed by the other and how they will continue to shape each other going forward.
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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. Recent study of the immediate commerce and trade (focusing mainly around the era of last 500 years of European Maritime expansion) describes the exchange of languages at trade as follows: In cases where bilingual speakers were few to none, Pidgin languages –with simplified grammar and vocabulary– developed, which come about as a means of communication solely for the purpose of trade. When flourishing trade routes last long enough, and at the hubs trading travelers start settling down locally, a Pidgin starts being spoken widely enough. The children of such a community start growing up learning a Pidgin as a first language. This is when a Pidgin language changes into a Creole language (having many fascinating characteristics of its own). Contrary to simple trade relationships, when a conquering or dominating group of people bring their own languages, it either supplants the native language or influences it heavily, and later goes for linguistic homogenization. Pidgins, on the other hand, develop because speakers are motivated to communicate in order to trade.

[Above: "The Lydian Lion", arguably the oldest surviving coins, representing organized trade and the associated language it bore which gave it its "value".]

Commerce is one of the many factors that drive linguistic homogenization. In the modern era of the internet and mass media, attention is the scarce resource. Choosing a language of commerce (e.g. English being adopted as a language of business by other European and former Russian communities) helps to maximize one's reach in business. On the personal aspect, the attention economy of modern mass media is highly language dependant as well.

On the other hand, the same internet proliferation and mass media has provided us with what is called "Machine translation services", such as Google Translate. 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. 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? Certainly those betting on machine translation services hope so. But there is a dueling problem here: Tackling human languages using machines requires a significant investment. However, at the same time, in order for machine translation to truly counteract linguistic homogenization, it has to be freely available as a ridiculously cheap service.

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.
  • See also:
  • Go here for articles related to the current economic crisis.
  • Go here for Jason Adams' blog website.
  • Go here for further discussion on "attention is the scarce resource".


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