Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Impotence of Words

It is intriguing that the noble Daniel Klein is pursuing a quest to reclaim the original, anti- rather than pro-government, use of the word "liberal", but he annoys me when he says, in an interview, that the word is "powerful". What evidence is there for this proposition? It is used in the original sense, or in a sense somewhat close to the original one, in countries like France and Sweden, whereas in the US it has, of course, acquired in many ways the opposite meaning. To define "liberal" as pro-welfare state is profoundly illogical to me and I wish Klein luck in his endeavour, but since France and Sweden are arguably quite a bit less liberal (in the classical sense) than the US, why would Klein claim the word is "powerful"? It has not made its original users more market orientated.

Casual evidence from other contexts suggests to me that words mean very little, indeed. In some countries, such as Finland and Iran, the dominant language does not distinguish between the sexes in its pronouns. H. L. Mencken's wonderful The American Language tells me (in a footnote on p. 175) that the third-person pronoun hesh was suggested in America around a hundred years ago to mean "he or she" in everyday usage. It evidently never took off, but that is how Finnish and Farsi work. So one way of estimating the effect of words on society is to look at how the gender-neutrality of pronouns might result in differences in how men and women behave in these countries compared to comparable ones. If language impacts how one views the world - as claimed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - men and women speaking Farsi and Finnish should behave differently than those speaking, say, English or French.

I strongly doubt the differences are significant here, if they exist at all; for instance, while women make up a high 40 per cent of the members of the Finnish parliament, the corresponding figure for Sweden is almost 45 per cent. Wikigender reports that the share of female members of corporate boards is also lower in Finland than it is in Sweden. Now there are certainly also studies indicating that gendered pronouns do influence how people think. However, to the best of my knowledge, the studies which support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis are of the variety that they ask subjects to read a text in which the gendered pronoun is prominent, then ask about career prospects, alternatively ask whether a man or a woman comes to mind.

Frankly, I cannot see why anyone would take these things too seriously. They offer some evidence, but it is very weak. If the image of a man, rather than that of a woman, comes to mind when using the pronoun "he" generically, and this has lasting consequences for one's attitudes or career choices or anything else of actual substance, then I believe one is so deficient in ability to reflect and make important life decisions that one simply does not exist; I cannot believe any human is that stupid. I hasten to add that this is far from my field and readers familiar with more evidence than this are welcome to contribute in the comments.

There are, of course, some studies in economics which look at attitudes and language. Guido Tabellini has claimed that usage of the second-person singular pronoun, rather than the plural, to address others, as well as capitalization of the word "I", are related to levels of respect, and a recent article in the Journal of Law and Economics links gendered pronouns to lower levels of maternity leave, but it seems to be sensitive to the inclusion or absence of just one or two countries, and neither of these articles includes - as far as I can recall - very many countries.

Some words begin to take on a pejorative meaning, such as nigger, cracker, kike and red-skin. Those may be powerful (although whether decent folks should avoid them is another issue - their using them might conceivably destroy their evil power?), but in these cases other words take on the original meaning of the pejoratives, so that what is really meant can still be expressed. I like the word liberal in its original sense and wish Klein and associates every bit of luck as I tend to use liberal to mean "small government". However, I would like to see some good evidence that the word is really as powerful as Klein claimed.
HT: Econlog's David R. Henderson

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