Arnold Kling  

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Africa: A Biography of the Continent, by John Reader. An excerpt (p. 306):


Six terms referring to horn shape, and "not fewer" than seventeen cattle colour terms were coined between AD 800 and 1450 in...[southern Africa]...So much linguistic innovation over such a large area...

Think about how much linquistic innovation has occurred in the past fifteen years. Then think about what constitutes "so much linguistic innovation" over a period of 650 years.

My guess is that if one just chose the English language and plotted linguistic innovation against time for the past 1300 years, one would see a hockey-stick graph comparable to the graph of economic growth. My guess is that the rate of linguistic innovation is a good proxy for the rate of change of both knowledge and productivity.

I'm a relative latecomer to this book. It is dense, and I am only about half way into it, but I have enjoyed plowing through it so far.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
razib writes:

one of my favorite books of all time.

re: linguistic innovation, i thought the spread of literacy resulted in the slowing down of linguistic evolution and change? so purely oral languages evolve and diversify much faster.

Sam writes:

This sounds like a job for Language Log!

Broadly speaking, it's very hard to do anything useful with lexeme counts. For one thing, an existing lexeme can acquire a new meaning: the word "bank" is attested in written English since 1200, but only acquires the meaning "a money-dealer's shop" in 1567 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

Whether anyone has done it -- whether it's even meaningful to try -- it would be interesting to see a plot of lexeme count vs. GDP.

Sam writes:

Razib:

A counterexample: the Pirahã have no written language, and a small lexicon; while English has had a written form for hundreds of years, yet has changed substantially.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Ray Kurzweil's Singularity book has dozens of charts showing hockey sticks, not just for technology invention, but also technology adoption. iPods have been adopted faster than VCR's which were faster than TV's which were faster than telephones.

Kurzweil's point is that technology is accelerating all kinds of change, including social and linguistic.

razib writes:

isn't using the Pirahã as one half of a dyad render the observation irrelevant for generalization? but you might right on the general point, i'm passing along muddled recollections.

Steve Sailer writes:

Yes, it's a good book. The subject matter tends to be economics-without-money: e.g., how many calories can be generated per acre from a given terrain/topography combination.

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