Does Language Shape our Economy?

Does Language Shape our Economy?

Forefront research in evolutionary linguistics and cognitive science suggest that language plays a key role in transmitting cultural knowledge and that it may influence cognition. However, if language captures a speakers’ worldviews and/or influences their cognitive framework, how does it influence their decision-making processes as economic agents? Is the way we speak economically relevant? What impact does language – specifically female/male distinctions in grammar - have on issues like gender discrimination?

To answer these questions, Professor Estefania Santacreu-Vasut, along with co-authors Victor Gay and Amir Shoham, looked at all four grammatical variables related to gender, relying on the most comprehensive data source of language grammatical structures – the World Atlas of Language Structures. 

  • The first variable: the number of genders in the language. Languages with two genders, like French, typically imply feminine versus masculine, while a language with three or more genders may include neuter as the third gender, like German, or non sex-related distinctions.         
  • The second variable: whether the gender system is sex-based. Sex-Based captures whether the gender system is linked to biological sex. For example, Zulu, Swedish and Danish are languages with a gender system that is not sex based.
  • The third variable: the rules for gender assignment and gender distinctions in pronouns. Gender-Assignment captures the rules speakers use to assign nouns to the genders defined by the gender system of the language. Assignment can depend on the meaning of the noun (semantic) or its form. For example, English assigns gender based on semantic grounds only while Spanish uses semantic and formal assignment rules.
  • The fourth variable: the stability of the gender feature within the language. Gender-Pronouns captures the gender distinctions in independent personal pronouns, which can be made in third-person pronouns and in the first and/or the second person. For example, English distinguishes gender in third-person pronouns only.

What emerged from this analysis is evidence that countries whose dominant language marks gender more intensively have significantly lower female labour-force participation rates. According to data the authors retrieved, a sex-based gender system decreases female labour-force participation by 12% points compared to having no gender system, ceteris paribus. Meanwhile, having a gender system based on other distinction then sex – such as animate/inanimate, age or social status – increases female labor-force participation by three percentage points compared to having no gender system.

That said, the authors also found that female/male distinctions in language increased incidences of gender political quotas, one of the main determinants of female political participation today.  In particular, countries whose dominant language emphasizes female/male distinctions more intensively are more likely to formally regulate women's presence in politics through the use of quotas and sanctions for their enforcement. Furthermore, those countries show a sharper increase in female political participation ex post quota adoption. 

Identifying whether language matters because it reflects our ancestors’ culture or influences our cognitive framework and formation of stereotypes and categorization of the social environment is a challenging avenue for future research, not least because migrants travel with their language. At any rate, the data collected in this study indicates that the intensity of female/male distinctions in the language has important effects on female labor-force participation, labor-market discrimination, quotas for female political participation and potentially on a vast array of female economic choices and the constraints they face.

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