Monday, 26 October 2009

Lingua Tecnologia

People worry that Capitalism and Technology will force everyone into a monoculture, destroying the idiosyncrasies of local cultures and languages. Here, I argue that, although these factors my cause people's cultures to grow increasingly closer, people's languages may diverge. This argument will take us to the North-West coast of India, but first, to a not-so-distant future.

Famers in Gujarat, India, using the Avaaj Otalo service.

In Jim Hurford's mini Sci-Fi Desperanto is set in a future society where people use lators - small devices which translate speech from one language into another - to speak to people outside their social group. Over time, language packs have been added so that anyone can speak to anyone else through them, even between dialects. This means that the languages of each little community are cut off from each other, leaving them free from the pressure to conform. The result is an explosion of diversity in languages.

The lators are used for trade between groups. However, similar systems may not be so futuristic.

Alastair Sussock was telling me about his Weather Insurance project for the IFMR Centre for Microfinance. It's an assessment of how farmers in the state of Gujarat, India, approach the idea of buying insurance against crop failure due to bad weather. Gujarat has an unstable climate where years of good rainfall will be punctuated by severe droughts, and weather insurance would help spread this risk. However, farmers were initially resistant to the idea of paying for a service which may not materialise. In the report, Sussock identifies 'financial literacy' as a major pitfall for the sale of insurance.

Indeed, his next project looked at how a mobile SMS system for disseminating local economic information would affect the farmers. There is a high degree of inefficiency in local markets, due to the farmers not being sure what price they will receive for their goods in which market towns. SMS farming is a system whereby farmers receive information about the prices of goods in various locations (e.g. 60 Rupies for 10kg of Cabbage in Ahmedabad) so they can best judge where to sell it and for how much. There are already several services set up (e.g. here), and many seem to be succeeding (here).

The idea is that farmers can optimise their business decisions, increasing profit and lowering prices. Armed with this financial knowledge, farmers are less dependent on social networks for information.

Daniel Nettle identifies ecological risk as a major factor in linguistic diversity. Where the environmental conditions are more variable and self-sufficiency is more difficult (e.g. a dessert/floodplain), groups must form close social bonds with each other in order to spread the risk of ruin. In this situation, it's more likely that linguistic norms are adopted by networked groups and, over time, everybody ends up speaking the same language. On the other hand, in ecologies where self-sufficiency is easy, there is less need to form close social bonds with other groups, therefore the languages will remain separate. Indeed, Nettle (1999) finds direct correlations between ecological risk and linguistic diversity.

Importantly, languages will only converge when groups have close social bonds with other, distant groups. Although the SMS technology may be expanding people's social networks, the new links are domain-specific and loose. Therefore, the introduction of ecological insurance and a centralised technical lingo for economics may have interesting effects on the linguistic diversity of India. If the ecological risk can be reduced by insurance, and the inter-group dependence and linguistic communication reduced through the SMS service, then the languages of individual groups will become increasingly isolated. This may, as Nettle and Hurford predict, lead to a diversification of language.

Although farmers across India may come to share a common financial language, the languages and dialects they use with those in their closest social circles will remain their own.

No comments:

Post a Comment