September 5, 2005
This time of year reminds me of the trauma of first love. The last weekend in August signalled the final days of Irish college, with tears, hugs and promises to write. I have vivid memories of packed trains pulling out of stations full of bawling, hysterical teenagers shrieking as if they were about to be fed to the Khmer Rouge.
For hundreds of thousand of Irish teenagers, Irish college was the first time away from home, time on their own, in all that hormonal splendour. It was, and still is, a central plank of the language revival movement, and, for the most part, is a pretty successful and hugely enjoyable way to learn Irish.
Our attachment to Irish, however cosmetic, is still strong. Despite the fact that English is our lingua franca, 80 per cent of us, when surveyed, respond that the Irish language is central to Irishness.
On the other hand, English is central to our economic wellbeing. So, while the linguistic part of our nationalist narrative has always lamented the passing of Irish and the foisting of the English language on us, English – particularly in recent years – has been crucial to our economy. In fact, the importance of language to our economic fortunes is one of the great overlooked issues in modern Irish economics.
Language is central to commerce, and the economic performance of English-speaking countries in the developed world has been remarkable in recent years. Western Europe is still stagnating, but maybe not as dramatically as Eurosceptics would have us believe.
Eastern Europe, which should be catching up quickly, is not doing so at any great pace. Latin America, which was thought to have put its problems behind it in the late 1990s, has had a miserable few years. Japan is mired in its post-bubble torpor.
In contrast, English-speaking countries have been growing at amazing rates. Ireland, America, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have all been growing strongly. More interestingly, our business cycles are very closely correlated, which at first blush makes no sense.
For example, we and the British are geographically and politically European, and we both trade with Europe, yet our business cycles are much more closely correlated to the US.
That could be explained by America’s leadership and dominance, but how do we explain the fact that Ireland’s recent business cycle is more closely correlated with far-off Australia than nearby Germany? The question is, why ï¿½ and more interestingly, why now?
Why should language give some countries an advantage over others and bind economic performances together?
Traditionally, economics is a great way of rounding up the usual tangible suspects when it comes to explaining events. On the intangibles, it is often less enlightening.
Language is a great intangible. You will not find chapters devoted to language in economics textbooks. Irrespective of this oversight, let’s have a look at the reasons why English speaking might be a positive economic resource.
First, there is the right-wing ideological school, which contends that English-speaking countries drink from the same philosophical waters. This school contends that we share similar economic outlooks and have a fondness for tax-cutting, smallish governments, light regulation and the promotion of the entrepreneur.
This view contends that, by the late 1980s, we had all enacted more or less similar Thatcherite policies, where the government pulled in its horns. The right-wingers contend that this put us in a good position to reap profits in the 1990s and the 2000s.This view looks plausible, and it makes neat, uncomplicated academic sense – the type of clarity beloved of right-wing ideologues ï¿½ until we realise that there is an elephant in the corner.
That elephant is the US which, since 2000, has been a textbook model of old-fashioned 1950sKeynesianism – the type of economics beloved of European social democrats. In the past five years, the US has borrowed to get out of recession. The federal government has spent money like a drunken sailor. This owes more to the economics of Roosevelt than to those of Reagan, and refutes the neat, all-encompassing right-wing view.
Second is the idea that the internet has Anglicised the world rapidly in the past few years. Some argue that e-mail and the internet put people who use different alphabets, such as the Japanese, at a particular disadvantage. In terms of the economics of language, it is far too early to conclude definitively but there might be something in this internet theory.
By far the most compelling theory is the globalisation one. English is the language of the global economy – business must use some common language, and no other tongue has the necessary critical mass. This means that people who have grown up speaking English have an automatic head start. It also means that for countries, like Ireland, that have played host to American capital, speaking English has been crucial.
Forget the blarney about the educated workforce – we are no better educated than the Belgians, French or Germans – but we are English-speaking, and that was the clincher for many American multinational companies which wanted to send their unadventurous middle managers to countries where they could order a beer after work.
The result of globalisation has been to synchronise the economic cycles of English-speaking countries. This suggests that language is a far more important economic resource than we think.
It also reiterates the economic inappropriateness of our EMU membership, because, by tying ourselves financially to a bunch of countries that have a different economic cycle to ourselves, we guarantee that the ups and downs of our own business cycle will be profoundly exaggerated. When we are booming, we have low interest rates priced for a German recession, and when we slow down we could have high interest rates if there were a German recovery – even though we have more in common with English-speaking Australia!
The connection between economic success and English in recent years has also led to something rather counter-intuitive for the fortunes of Irish. Gael-Linn, Gaelscoileanna and language courses have never been in such demand. Irish people are now exploring Irish as never before.
When I was a teenager, for many of us suburban kids, Irish was associated with economic backwardness. When you are poor you don’t have time to concern yourself with culture, but now that the economy has benefited enormously from English, we are re-examining the Irish language, and the prospects for the Irish haven’t looked this good for over 100 years.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the main cultural beneficiary of English economic hegemony was a revival in Irish?