Language: the Worlds Greatest Currency

cur·ren·cy [kur-uhn-see, kuhr-]

1. something that is used as a medium of exchange; money.

2. general acceptance; prevalence; vogue.

3. a time or period during which something is widely accepted and circulated.

4. the fact or quality of being widely accepted and circulated from person to person.


Language as a Currency

The more I think about it, the more I see striking similarities between language and currency.  In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that language is greatest currency ever invented!  Even though on facevalue language might not come off as something you would normal describe as a currency, I think you’ll come to find that their properties are inherently simbiotic.  We’ll take this in Socratic fashion and analyize the properties that make something a currency.


A medium of exchange

First and foremost, currency operates as a medium of exchange.  A medium of exchange is another way for saying represent value, much like the old algebra days of A = B.  There are a lot of effective means for doing this, with bartering being one of the earliest examples eg I’ll trade you 5 oranges for 1 chicken.  But bartering chickens for oranges was not a very efficient means of trading. Goods aren’t easily divisible (difficult to sell half a shoe), 2-way trades are increasingly difficult (ie, you dont necessarily always want what the other guy has), and there are way too many variables to peg valuations with current market demands.

Thus, currency!  But does the green piece of paper in your pocket really have an intrinsic value other than the paper itself?  The dollar is effective because it represents value.  It captures the value of any given item to meet market standards, is easily divisibe, and can be a one-way exchange.

Again, the paper itself has no value other than the material it is printed on.  Yet because an overwhelming amount of people accept it as a medium of exchange, the dollar becomes an effective means of currency.  That piece of paper in your pocket can represent a lot of value.  Chances are if I went around tomorrow and tried to pay with clam shells, I wouldn’t be met with such reception; there simply aren’t enough people who would recognize clam shells as conveying the same value.


Language as a medium of exchange

Similarly, language acts as a medium of exchange for capturing a thought in value, so to speak.  The word ‘spoon’ is just as effective as describing    as is cuchara (Spanish), colher (Portuguese), or löffel (German).  It is effective because enough people come to general acceptance that the vocal vibrations from your larynx box, that sound out  ‘spoon’, to accuratly capture    in meaning.  Yet if I started calling spoons ‘nipsombas’ tomorrow, no one would have any idea what I was talking about.

Much like the clam shells example used above, integrating a new made up word wouldn’t be very effective means for relying information and sharing thoughts about a spoon, that is to say, operating as an effective medium of exchange.  Once again, it drives its value from general adaption from the masses.


Evolution to Current Standards

But these things can change!  Languages evolve over time, just as currencies do; the same vocal vibrations can capture a complete different thought depending on the time it was used.  ‘Awful’ meant ‘full of awe’ in the past, while now it is used to describe the thought of unpleasantness and distaste.  ‘Nice’ in 14th Century English was used to describe ignorance, stupid, not-knowing, while today it is used to describe thoughts of amiable, friendly, and pleasant.

Money, similarly, has taken its course.  Things we have used as currency before printed bills includes cows, large stones, clam shells, gold, grains, spices, and even human flesh.  Some of the earliest creditors in the Italian states would sign notes with a guarantee of human flesh if the payment wasn’t fulfilled.  Imagine having to do that to sign a mortagage on your new house.

A lot of different things can serve as an effective medium of exchange.  Ideally, it carries out those 3 many properties of 1) easy divisibility and carrying (you don’t want to lug large stones around, nor are they easy to divide in half); 2) long shelf life (cows and grains can spoil); and 3) acceptance from a large mass of people.

So while no one would accept my clam shell payment in today, a couple centuries ago that was a very common medium of exchange!  This is why I am admitingly such a big fan of virtual currenies, such as Bitcoin.  Currencies can, and do, change over time.


Tangible vs Intangible

You might be thinking, “ok, I suppose that’s all fine, but there’s still one problem: I can’t buy anything with words.”  It’s not like you can waltz into a dealership and swoon and sweet talk your way into a new car.  We often think of currency as having tangible effects, while language as intangible.  With tangible being something you can physically hold and intangible meaning something you can’t.

In an increasingly digital era, these become muddled together.  97% of ‘currency’ does exist in physical form, but rather is stored through a series of 1’s and 0’s in computers memory and listed on big bank ledgers.  By going to the ATM and punching in a few digits, those intangible strings of 1’s and 0’s turn into a tangible piece of paper you can hold in your hand.  The intangible becomes tangible.

Language, similarly, operates the same way.  Think above how knowledge is shared from person to person.  Although the words in a conversation don’t exist other than the molecular model of dust particles vibrating at different frequencies, they can produce tangible results.  This is the old adage “give a man and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Those words exchanged created very tangible results.

Similarly, you can think of partnerships, business agreements, and saying “I do” at the alter to having very tangible effects in your life.  This doesn’t even begin to say the entire extent of shared knowledge, and what tangible effects that produces in the world (much like the fish example above).  The distictions between to two seem to just melt away when you stack the two side by side and look at their value and usage.


The Power of Language

Language is the most powerful tool we own.  It’s what seperates us from all other speicies on earth in the complexities of how we convey feelings and share knowledge.  Telling someone you love them everyday verses telling someone they are a piece of shit everyday is going to create very descernable physical distictions in the neuroplasicity of someones brain.  The brain literally becomes rewired differently when exposed to one form over the other.  Obviously, this is taken to one extreme, but the point being to recognize what you give and take in ever vocal transaction you have throughout the day.

Have you ever gone up to a stranger on the street and told them you think they are beautiful?  What kind of impact do you think that has on the rest of their day vs finding $20 on the ground?  Both on a neurological level of the endorphins and oxytocin released and their physical well-being for the rest of the day?  Our words our very powerful mediums of exchange.  Language quickly becomes the most powerful currency I know.


Not Convinced?

I’ll leave you with the same definition of currency pulled from the dictionary that I stated in the beginning; perhaps it’s a concept you’ll buy into now 😉

cur·ren·cy [kur-uhn-see, kuhr-]

1. something that is used as a medium of exchange; money.

2. general acceptance; prevalence; vogue.

3. a time or period during which something is widely accepted and circulated.

4. the fact or quality of being widely accepted and circulated from person to person.