The TOWER OF BABEL: why we are still a long way from everyone speaking the same language

Nearly a third of the world’s 6,000 plus distinct languages have more than 35,000 speakers. But despite the big communications advantages of a few widely spoken languages such as English and Spanish, there is no sign of a systematic decline in the number of people speaking this large group of relatively small languages.


These are among the findings of a new study by Professor David Clingingsmith, published in the February 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. His analysis explains how it is possible to have a stable situation in which the world has a small number of very large languages and a large number of small languages.

Does this mean that the benefits of a universal language could never be so great as to induce a sweeping consolidation of language? No, the study concludes:

‘Consider the example of migrants, who tend to switch to the language of their adopted home within a few generations. When the incentives are large enough, populations do switch languages.’

‘The question we can’t yet answer is whether recent technological developments, such as the internet, will change the benefits enough to make such switching worthwhile more broadly.’

Why don’t all people speak the same language? At least since the story of the Tower of Babel, humans have puzzled over the diversity of spoken languages. As with the ancient writers of the book of Genesis, economists have also recognised that there are advantages when people speak a common language, and that those advantages only increase when more people adopt a language.

This simple reasoning predicts that humans should eventually adopt a common language. The growing role of English as the world’s lingua franca and the radical shrinking of distances enabled by the internet has led many people to speculate that the emergence of a universal human language is, if not imminent, at least on the horizon.

There are more than 6,000 distinct languages spoken in the world today. Just 16 of these languages are the native languages of fully half the human population, while the median language is known by only 10,000 people.

The implications might appear to be clear: if we are indeed on the road to a universal language, then the populations speaking the vast majority of these languages must be shrinking relative to the largest ones, on their way to extinction.

The new study presents a very different picture. The author first uses population censuses to produce a new set of estimates of the level and growth of language populations.

The relative paucity of data on the number of people speaking the world’s languages at different points in time means that this can be done for only 344 languages. Nevertheless, the data clearly suggest that the populations of the 29% of languages that have 35,000 or more speakers are stable, not shrinking.

How could this stability be consistent with the very real advantages offered by widely spoken languages? The key is to realise that most human interaction has a local character.

This insight is central to the author’s analysis, which shows that even when there are strong benefits to adopting a common language, we can still end up in a world with a small number of very large languages and a large number of small ones. Numerical simulations of the analytical model produce distributions of language sizes that look very much like the one that actually obtain in the world today.

Summary of the article ‘Are the World’s Languages Consolidating? The Dynamics and Distribution of Language Populations’ by David Clingingsmith. Published in Economic Journal on February 2017

WELFARE SPENDING DOESN’T ‘CROWD OUT’ CHARITABLE WORK: Historical evidence from England under the Poor Laws

Cutting the welfare budget is unlikely to lead to an increase in private voluntary work and charitable giving, according to research by Nina Boberg-Fazlic and Paul Sharp.

Their study of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, published in the February 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, shows that parts of the country where there was increased spending under the Poor Laws actually enjoyed higher levels of charitable income.

Edmé Jean Pigal, 1800 ca. An amputee beggar holds out his hat to a well dressed man who is standing with his hands in his pockets. Artist’s caption’s translation: “I don’t give to idlers”. From Wikimedia Commons



The authors conclude:

‘Since the end of the Second World War, the size and scope of government welfare provision has come increasingly under attack.’

‘There are theoretical justifications for this, but we believe that the idea of ‘crowding out’ – public spending deterring private efforts – should not be one of them.’

‘On the contrary, there even seems to be evidence that government can set an example for private donors.

Why does Europe have considerably higher welfare provision than the United States? One long debated explanation is the existence of a ‘crowding out’ effect, whereby government spending crowds out private voluntary work and charitable giving. The idea is that taxpayers feel that they are already contributing through their taxes and thus do not contribute as much privately.

Crowding out makes intuitive sense if people are only concerned with the total level of welfare provided. But many other factors might play a role in the decision to donate privately and, in fact, studies on this topic have led to inconclusive results.

The idea of crowding out has also caught the imagination of politicians, most recently as part of the flagship policy of the UK’s Conservative Party in the 2010 General Election: the so-called ‘big society’. If crowding out holds, spending cuts could be justified by the notion that the private sector will take over.

The new study shows that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the authors provide historical evidence for the opposite. They analyse data on per capita charitable income and public welfare spending in England between 1785 and 1815. This was a time when welfare spending was regulated locally under the Poor Laws, which meant that different areas in England had different levels of spending and generosity in terms of who received how much relief for how long.

The research finds no evidence of crowding out; rather, it finds that parts of the country with higher state provision of welfare actually enjoyed higher levels of charitable income. At the time, Poor Law spending was increasing rapidly, largely due to strains caused by the Industrial Revolution. This increase occurred despite there being no changes in the laws regulating relief during this period.

The increase in Poor Law spending led to concerns among contemporary commentators and economists. Many expressed the belief that the increase in spending was due to a disincentive effect of poor relief and that mandatory contributions through the poor rate would crowd out voluntary giving, thereby undermining social virtue. That public debate now largely repeats itself two hundred years later.


Summary of the article ‘Does Welfare Spending Crowd Out Charitable Activity? Evidence from Historical England under the Poor Laws’ by Nina Boberg-Fazlic (University of Duisberg-Essen) and Paul Sharp (University of Southern Denmark). Published in  Economic Journal, February 2017

France’s Nineteenth Century Wine Crisis: the impact on crime rates

Street Wine Merchant, France 19th century. From Wikimedia Commons


The phylloxera crisis in nineteenth century France destroyed 40% of the country’s vineyards, devastating local economies. According to research by Vincent Bignon, Eve Caroli, and Roberto Galbiati, the negative shock to wine production led to a substantial increase in property crime in the affected regions. But their study, published in the February 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, also finds that there was a significant fall in violent crimes because of the reduction in alcohol consumption.

It has long been debated whether crime responds to economic conditions. In particular, do crime rates increase because of financial crises or major downsizing events in regions heavily specialised in some industries?

Casual observation and statistical evidence suggest that property crimes are more frequent during economic crises. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has claimed that in a sample of 15 countries, theft has sharply increased during the last economic crisis.[1]

These issues are important because crime is also known to have a damaging impact on economic growth by discouraging business and talented workers from settling in regions with high rates of crime. If an economic downturn triggers an increase in the crime rate, it could have long-lasting effects by discouraging recovery.

But since multiple factors can simultaneously affect economic conditions and the propensity to commit crime, identifying a causal effect of economic conditions on crime rates is challenging.

The new research addresses the issue by examining how crime rates were affected by a major economic crisis that massively hit wine production, France’s most iconic industry, in the nineteenth century.

The crisis was triggered by the near microscopic insect named phylloxera vastatrix. It originally lived in North America and did not reach Europe in the era of sailing ships since the transatlantic journey took so long that it had died on arrival.

Steam power provided the greater speed needed for phylloxera to survive the trip and it arrived in France in 1863 on imported US vines. Innocuous in its original ecology, phylloxera proved very destructive for French vineyards by sucking the sap of the vines. Between 1863 and 1890, it destroyed about 40% of them, thus causing a significant loss of GDP.

Because phylloxera took time to spread, not all districts started being hit at the same moment, and because districts differed widely in their ability to grow wines, not all districts were hit equally. The phylloxera crisis is therefore an ideal natural experiment to identify the impact of an economic crisis on crime because it generated exogenous variation in economic activity in 75 French districts.

To show the effect quantitatively, the researchers have collected local administrative data on the evolution of property and violent crime rates, as well as minor offences. They use these data to study whether crime increased significantly after the arrival of phylloxera and the ensuing destruction of the vineyards that it entailed.

The results suggest that the phylloxera crisis caused a substantial increase in property crime rates and a significant decrease in violent crimes. The effect on property crime was driven by the negative income shock induced by the crisis. People coped with the negative income shock by engaging in property crimes. At the same time, the reduction in alcohol consumption induced by the phylloxera crisis had a positive effect on the reduction of violent crimes.

From a policy point of view, these results suggest that crises and downsizing events can have long lasting effects. By showing that the near-disappearance of an industry (in this case only a temporary phenomenon) can trigger long-run negative consequences on local districts through an increasing crime rate, this study underlines that this issue must be high on the policy agenda at times of crises.


Summary of the article ‘Stealing to Survive? Crime and Income Shocks in Nineteenth Century France’ by Vincent Bignon, Eve Caroli and Roberto Galbiati. Published in Economic Journal on February 2017

[1] ‘Monitoring the impact of economic crisis on crime’, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2012. This effect was also noted by the French ‘Observatoire national de la délinquance et des réponses pénales’, when it underlines that burglaries sharply increased in France in the period 2007 to 2012.