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Why Some Nations Prosper While Others Don't?

Anastasiia Bochkovskaia, Bachelor’s programme "HSE/NES Programme in Economics"2016 alumna investigates if it is the word order that really matters

 

Anastasiia Bochkovskaia: My primary intention was to examine whether grammatical structure of a language can influence its speakers' economic well-being. For example, putting verb into the first place in a sentence might suggest that speakers of such a language are greatly concerned about action, since they are transmitting it first of all – thus, they might experience higher levels of production and output comparing to speakers of different languages. Or perhaps speaking languages with word orders that are most widespread worldwide facilitates easier communication and decreases misunderstanding, which leads to more effective economic activity.

Initially, I found that speaking languages with no dominant word order is associated with higher levels of GDP per capita. Psycholinguistic studies claim that speakers of such languages acquire more extra-grammatical information in the process of communication – therefore, collaboration in their countries should be more effective and the countries' economies should perform better. However, when I measured the economic development in a different way – as the amount of light visible from space at night – my initial result didn't hold. The link between languages and economics became insignificant after considering the fact that languages are not independent of each other in terms of how they appeared and evolved over time.

The main complication for my study is the lack of appropriate linguistic data and also the lack of psycholinguistic evidence to explain the findings. Thus, although my paper is the first attempt to estimate the link between word order and economic development, it obviously leaves much place for further interdisciplinary research.

Thesis Advisor:
Shlomo Weber, Acting Rector, New Economic School

Paper title: The Impact of Languages’ Grammatical Structure on Regional Economic Development

Abstract: There are more than 7,000 living languages in the world. Starting from Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, scholars were determined to explore the ways in which numerous differences in languages influence thinking and habits of their speakers. Vocabulary, speech rate, the direction in which the language is written were listed as potential sources of behavioral distinctions among nations. In addition to these dissimilarities, languages vary grammatically in terms of the word order they employ. In this paper, I explore the link between this language feature and regional economic development. I argue that different behavioral patterns emerge, leading nations to different economic outcomes, depending on whether a language has a preferred word order, and which of the three components – subject (S), object (O), or verb (V) – it puts in the first place in a sentence. I find that countries which speak languages with no dominant order exhibit higher levels of GDP per capita, although for official languages, SVO or SOV order is more preferable. This result is consistent with recent psycholinguistic findings. Finally, I conduct a robustness check using another proxy for the economic development – nighttime lights visible from space obtained from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Operational Linescan System (DMSP-OLS). However, after controlling for the historical relatedness of languages, results become statistically insignificant.