Monday, November 28, 2011

Like, you know...?

We often take language for granted. Sharing a building with the Linguistics Department here and the occasional awkward lost in translation moment has made me appreciate the importance of communication to society. Grown-up economists have considered it too: Ariel Rubinstein has a book entitled 'Language and Economics', which you can download for free from his rather unique website.

Bart Lipman is a theorist in Boston University. In 2002 he wrote a paper on language and economics which memorably opened with "I find myself in the rather awkward position of trying to survey a literature which (as I will feel compelled to define it) almost doesn't exist." He has continued the fine tradition with a 2009 working paper:

Why is language vague?
Barton L. Lipman
Department of Economics
Boston University
Current Draft: November 2009

Abstract: I don't know.

Funny abstract aside, the conclusion may strike a chord with this blog's readership:
"Put differently, the vastness of even very simple sets of options suggests it is ludicrous to think a real person would have well defined ideas, much less well behaved preferences ... In short, it is not that people have a precise view of the world but communicate it vaguely; instead, they have a vague view of the world."
(H/T: Jeff Smith)

Addendum: this Father Ted clip is apt.

2 comments:

Liam Delaney said...

Really interesting stuff, thanks Enda. I remember reading a lot about the old Chomsky critique of behavioural theories of language which held that people formed language through gradual reinforcement by parents. Chomsky basically countered with the 'colourless green ideas sleep furiously' argument, which is that the infinite generativity power of language was such as to make a mockery of any idea that it was learned in a simple behavioural fashion.

Martin Ryan said...

Interesting stuff Enda. Like the look of your blog aswell.

You are of course familiar with Deirdre McCloskey. This thread seemed like a good place to link to her book on The Rhetoric of Economics.

Also, Gavin Kostick posted on the Irish Economy blog at one point about the use of metaphor related to the Irish economy.

On language more widely, I am quasi-familiar with a book by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, called "The Language Instinct". It delves into the issues that Liam mentions. A lot of Pinker's talks are on YouTube; and are well worth watching.