What Croissants, Vaccines and the Speed at which you Speak have in common- Part I of II

A recent thought of mine led me down an interesting rabbit hole. I’d discovered one of the features of a very informative website by the name of Wolfram Alpha where it compares languages in several categories, one of them being typical translation length. Being interested first and foremost in the language that had been a medium of instruction for my education, I decided to glance at its comparison with other foreign languages I had picked up. And boy, had my suspicions been right all along! If a text in English were taken to have unit length, its translated counterparts in both German and French would be 1.1 units long. Looks like all those compound words (looking at you, Deutsch) and unearthly spellings (oui, that’d be toi, français) were really taking a toll on the word-o-meter. So you see, I was then intrigued as to whether English was really an economical language (after all, that would go a long way in explaining its rise to power as the lingua franca of the world today), only to be pleasantly surprised by the facts that were revealed to me next.

Language performed an experiment to measure the speech information rate (the amount of information that can be conveyed per second through each language) of seven of the world’s most spoken languages and the speeds at which they are spoken relative to one another (Pellegrino et al., 2011). The results are summed up here and here. I do encourage you to take a look, but the gist of it was that more densely-packed languages like Mandarin were spoken at lower speeds than less information-dense ones like Spanish and Japanese. In a way, the speakers of information-heavy languages could afford the slow-paced talk while those on the other end had to compensate for the rarity of information by picking up the pace. Although English came out on top in the survey by topping the information density rate charts, it’s far from winning that title outside this particular experimental subset. That honour is accorded to the hypothetical language of Ithkuil created by John Quijada which says it like it is sans ambiguity, sans redundancy (who needs synonyms?), sans polysemy (basically homonyms); hypothetical because it has a total of zero fluent speakers, not even its own creator is worthy of that distinction. Ithkuil manages to pack into it the greatest amount of logic, accuracy and detail with the most efficiency in all of spoken language. You can have a look at just how it accomplishes that particular task here, but be warned, it’s not for the weak-hearted.

Nevertheless, it turns out that the speakers of the world’s seven most spoken languages were, consciously or otherwise, ensuring that they made good use of their language skills coupled with the time they had at their disposal. There’s something important at play here; this revelation encloses in it a fundamental, yet profound economic concept, particularly that going by the name of Opportunity Cost.

By speaking faster (slower), the speakers of our languages appear to be levelling the playing field, as it were, by making sure that they weren’t at any disadvantage (advantage) compared to the speakers of other commonly spoken languages.

Expressed as a simple equation,

Amount of Communication =  Speed of speaking  x  Rate of conveyance of Information

It can be seen how speakers were accordingly adjusting their speed to compensate for a  deficit or surplus in the ‘Rate of conveyance of information’. In the end, what this was accomplishing was an equalising of the bottom line– how much communication got done at the end of the day, regardless of which language it occurred in. This would then also have the implication that there was no evident reason to actually learn any of these languages. Arguably, these were the shortlisted ones giving the most bang-for-the-buck of the whole lot, given that they were the most widely used. But then again, learning them would not translate into added efficiency if they ended up employing the new language in the same manner (read tempo) that its speakers already did. So all in all, nobody’s left regretful of never having gotten round to the same-old New Year’s resolution of learning a new language, because simply, “What’s the point, right?”. 

Ithkuil, though most impressively conceived as far as efficiency was concerned, is infamous for being notoriously difficult to master. It presents too great an opportunity cost in terms of acquisition and real-life application, especially absent any fluent speakers and original literature. Picking up new languages is no small feat, as enthusiasts like myself will readily attest to, but when faced with such hindrances, the odds really do line up against you. Perhaps this explains why even Ithkuil’s homepage deems it fit to describe it as ‘A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language’. To quote from the same source, 

It is by no means intended to function as a “natural” human language. Ithkuil exists as an exercise in exploring how human languages could function, not how human languages do function.

With that out of the way, I’m hoping to have given you a feel of what Opportunity Cost entails in economics. More formally, it represents (starting with a given set of available resources) any kind of potential benefit or advantage that ends up foregone in the choice of one course of action over its alternatives. To go about measuring opportunity costs, the method applied is to calculate the return (or gains) from the next best course of action. This can be understood by taking the following example: You, a rational economic agent, live on Earth and walk into an ice-cream shop. Faced with an array of ice-cream flavours, you must make a certain choice. Let’s also throw in the assumptions that all flavours cost the same and you’re only thinking of buying a single scoop. Say you choose chocolate, because it’s your favourite. Now imagine a version of yourself living on PseudoEarth in a parallel universe where chocolate does not exist (yes, I know, what an unspeakable tragedy, but humour me for a bit). You walk into the same ice-cream shop and ask yourself, “Which flavour do I want?”. It so happens that you then choose to eat strawberry ice-cream. Assuming that this version of you is also acting rationally, your answer to that question (strawberry) must have been in line with what you considered as the best possible course of action barring the choice you made on Earth (chocolate).

In other words, you derived the greatest satisfaction from eating chocolate ice-cream and when that was not possible, you opted for strawberry. The opportunity cost of eating chocolate ice-cream is then tantamount to the satisfaction you gain from eating ice-cream that’s strawberry-flavoured.  You should only keep on eating chocolate ice-cream for as long as the benefit of doing so outweighs that offered by strawberry. Should you find one day that the quality of your favourite flavour has deteriorated such that you no longer enjoy it, you ought to make the shift to strawberry. Similarly, while no monetary resources are being expended per se in reading this article, for instance, since it’s not behind a paywall, it does take up your time and attention. It makes sense for you to continue reading it only if you find these scarce resources at your disposal being put to the best use by way of doing so. The only way you can ascertain this is to consider what you would have opted to do with these resources otherwise and work out for yourself whether this article provides greater gains than that alternative course of action.

Coming back to our original example on languages, a compelling argument is put forth in The Economic Naturalist by Robert Frank (2008) in that same vein:

[O]pportunity cost helps explain a host of interesting behaviour patterns. Consider, for example, the widely remarked cultural differences between a large city like London and smaller towns in the north of England, for example. Why do residents of Paddington tend to be rude and impatient, but residents of Preston friendly and courteous? […] If you ask for directions in Preston, people stop and help you; in Paddington, they may not even make eye contact. Because London has a high wage rate and a rich menu of things to do, the opportunity cost of people’s time is very high there. So perhaps it is only to be expected that Londoners would be a little quicker to show impatience. (pp. 6-7)

Time is money, they say, and that’s true nowhere more than grand, bustling cities. I’d venture that the same logic applies to the already examined aspect of the pace of people’s speech. If it’s not just my imagination, rural folk have a much more drawn-out parlance than do their urban counterparts, rattling away at speeds that would rival most disclaimers issued at the end of TV advertisements (and why shouldn’t they? Every second counts!).

Anoosheh Zahra Mirkhushal

SY B.Sc Economics


Pellegrino, F., Coupé, C., & Marsico, E. (2011). Across-Language Perspective on Speech Information Rate. Language 87(3), 539-558. doi:10.1353/lan.2011.0057.

Frank, R. H. (2008). The economic naturalist: in search of explanations for everyday enigmas. Basic Books. 

This is the first of a two-part article. Read the second part here.

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