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What drives language?

January 14, 2008

Language is often mentioned as an example of emergent order. It clearly evolves, and not by design. But what drives the subtle incremental changes that end up producing two entirely different languages like, say, French and Italian? Is it just a question of an innate propensity in humans to experiment with words? Or is there some other deep reason at the root of this dynamics? As any (economically biased) person might expect, there is a principle that could explain language……drum rolls…..hold on to your chair……and click here!

That’s right, David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage shows that people are naturally led to specialize and trade. However, specialization is a move towards rationalization and hence requires new abstract thoughts and new words. By splitting a task in more and more refined steps that involve new tools and new technology, specialization creates an evolution not only in the human body and mind, but also in human speech.

Here’s a nice example. The word for ‘needle’ in Italian is ‘ago’ from the Latin word ‘acus’. In French, the word ‘aiguille’ comes from the later Latin word ‘acucula’, which was derived from ‘acus’ to denote more specialized needles. Message to the Internauts out there: if you run into other such examples send them along!

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