Russian Economic Reform

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Effect of languages (Russian, English, Chinese) on economic and political power

Published on February 21 2013
Posted by: jeff

The Russian Liberal Democrat party is reportedly seeking legislation to stop the “conquering march” of foreign words into the Russian language. It wants to punish those responsible for any violation of the norms of the contemporary Russian language”.

But it might be that the Russian language — and economy — needs some help from the Chinese language!

On my first trip to Russia many years ago I realized that I would need to learn Russian if I wanted to seriously understand the Russian economy and its politics. I put more emphasis on learning to read Russian than to speak it.

The Chinese language, however, is a different matter! Learning to read Chinese is extremely difficult and time consuming. Thus, I have concentrated on learning to speak Chinese rather than read. Fortunately, Chinese spoken grammar is simpler than either English or Russian grammar.

For example, the simple Chinese expression “wǒ” (written 我 ) is equivalent to “I” and “me” in English, and equivalent to each of “Я”, “меня”, “мне” and “мной” in Russian.

In reality, except for the rules of grammar, the English “I” and “me” are completely interchangeable – ie they mean exactly the same thing. The Russian case system means that “Я”, “меня”, “мне” and “мной” do often convey different meanings, but in my view Russian could be somewhat simplified (particularly in the presence of prepositions). For example, instead of “У меня” could have “У Я” !!!

What are the consequences (economic and political) of language differences?

Professor Keith Chen, a behavioural economist at Yale claims that “languages with obligatory future-time reference (such as English and Russian) lead their speakers to engage in less future-oriented behaviour”.

Or as he puts it in the “Introduction” to his paper:

“I test a linguistic-savings hypothesis: that being required to speak in a distinct way about future events leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. This hypothesis arises naturally if grammatically separating the future and the present leads speakers to disassociate the future from the present. This would make the future feel more distant, and since saving involves current costs for future rewards, would make saving harder. On the other hand, some languages grammatically equate the present and future. Those speakers would be more willing to save for a future which appears closer. Put another way, I ask whether a habit of speech which disassociates the future from the present, can cause people to devalue future rewards.”

He says:

“Languages differ widely in both how and when they require speakers to signal that they are talking about the future. For example, English primarily marks the future with either ‘will’ or forms of ‘be going to’ – and “some languages mark future events using a much larger and diverse set of constructions”. “More subtly, languages also differ in when they require speakers to specify the timing of events, or when timing can be left unsaid. The linguist Roman Jakobson explained this difference as: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they MUST convey and not in what they MAY convey’”

“For example, if I wanted to explain to an English-speaking colleague why I can’t attend a meeting later today, I could not say ‘I go to the library’. English grammar would oblige me to say ‘I (will go, am going, have to go) to the library’. If on the other hand I were speaking Mandarin, it would be quite natural for me to omit any marker of future time and say

Wǒ qù túshūguǎn  (written 我去图书馆)

(I     go      library)

with no reference to future time, since the context leaves little room for misunderstanding.

“In this way, English forces its speakers to habitually divide time between the present and future in a way that Mandarin (which has no tenses) does not. Of course, this does not mean that Mandarin speakers are unable (or even less able) to understand the difference between the present and future, only that they are NOT required to attend to it EVERY time they speak.”

Chen argues that native English (and Russian) speakers who are required by grammar rules to use tense, are — as the BBC puts it — less likely than a Mandarin speaker to save for old age. See BBC article by Tim Bowler here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21518574

I am doubtful about this effect, as are most linguists. But if Chen is right, the Russian economy may benefit from some changes to Russian grammar to make it more like Chinese!

Whatever the case, it does seem to me that both English and Russian (even more so) have over time become padded with unnecessary grammar conventions – in comparison with Chinese.

As a native English speaker I have found the quite simple grammar rules of speaking Chinese a welcome relief from the complex rules of Russian grammar.

However, in my view, the Chinese written language will act to limit the influence of China in the world, even as its economic (and military) power grows.

But, the situation could be different!

When I first started learning Chinese I assumed that the “pinyin” – based on the Roman alphabet – was just for stupid foreigners (like me) to help them learn the language. But this is not so!

In recent decades “pinyin” has been officially used in Chinese schools to help children make the correct sounds when speaking. This does not necessarily mean that they can read sentences constructed using “pinyin” – indeed, most Chinese probably cannot. But, the potential is there for new generations of Chinese to make greater use of the possibilities offered by “pinyin”.

I would add, as an aside comment, that my Chinese teacher — a native of central China who lives in Moscow — speaks better Russian than English, but would use Roman letter “pinyin” rather than Cyrillic to teach Chinese to a native Russian speaker. What this means is that a native Russian speaker would learn to pronounce Roman letters — and some English — on the way to learning Chinese. This is something that might be a cause for additional anguish in the Russian Liberal Democrat party.

In my view, China has a potentially very powerful unused language tool with which to increase its influence in the world (in a similar way as the UK and US have been able to use English).

Grammatically, “pinyin” is easier to use than Russian – and the letters are not Cyrillic! Of course, Russian words can be written using Roman letters, but even then a good knowledge of Russian grammar is required.

The only real problem with “pinyin” is the need for using the correct tones, because the same set of “pinying” Roman letters can have completely different meaning depending on the way (ie tonal) they are expressed. And, admittedly, this is not a small difficulty.