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The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus

Author(s):Dudley, Leonard
Reviewer(s):Sasaki, Yu

Published by EH.Net (May 2018)

Leonard Dudley, The Singularity of Western Innovation: The Language Nexus. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017. vii + 316 pp. $170 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-137-40317-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Yu Sasaki, Waseda Institute of Advanced Study, Waseda University.

 
In The Singularity of Western Innovation, Leonard Dudley of Université de Montréal seeks to identify a cause of “Western innovation,” the term that encompasses the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the military revolution of the twentieth century. For Dudley, a primary cause is what he calls the “language nexus,” or the degree to which the main vernacular of a society was standardized in the preceding centuries. He argues that language standardization was far more advanced in Western Europe before 1800 than in contemporaneous eastern empires of Turkey, India, and China. Europe’s cultural precocity eventually led to key inventions in the modern era, including the steam engine, telegraph, electricity, and submarines. Given that these emerged from select Western states, namely Britain, France, and the United States as a British offshoot, the substantive question that is explored in the book is: what enabled these countries to lead in innovation? Addressing this puzzle is important to economic history, because it helps understand why it was Western Europe that economically “took off” first and not other world regions.

Dudley sets out to investigate this question in fourteen chapters that are organized in three sections. Each chapter clearly identifies a thesis and discusses it in a schematic fashion: on each topic, the European (mostly English) experience comes first as the benchmark case, followed by the brief comparison of the Ottoman, Indian, and Chinese cases. After the introductory chapter, Part I traces the extent to which vernaculars were developed in each society in Chapters 2 through 5. Chapter 2 lays out the foundation of language development by examining the dynastic cycle of the seventeenth century. It points out that while the eastern empires continued to suffer from the dynastic cycle — the pattern of the rise and fall of empires through financial instability, internal rebellion or external attack, and regime replacement — this cycle ceased in England as the power of the Parliament grew stronger relative to that of monarchy. This transformation ultimately gave England stability not only in finance but also in daily lives among ordinary citizens, giving an impetus for trust and cooperation in the subsequent centuries.

Chapter 3 discusses the adoption of print technology. In Europe, the metal movable type, invented by Johannes Gutenberg circa 1450, became the standard tool until the twentieth century. Non-European empires had a distinct experience with print. Although Jews brought Gutenberg presses to the Ottoman domain by the end of the fifteenth century, Istanbul banned private printing in Turkish or Arabic until 1726 (private printing in other languages was allowed). The main rationale for the ban is that the Ottomans relied upon oral communications by religious leaders to broadcast and maintain political authority. Printing presses would leave written records and political adversaries might take advantage of any inconsistency between those records and oral transmission to challenge the authority. In India, it was westerners who led the development of vernacular printing to understand local languages (and aid the business for firms such as the East India Company). It seems that the Mughals preferred hand-written materials to printed forms, and only in the late eighteenth century did vernacular print start by the initiative of an Englishman. China was the birthplace of movable type in the eleventh century, but woodblock printing, a more labor-intensive form, became standard until the late nineteenth century.

Chapter 4 describes literacy rates in the seventeenth century whose variation across the cases comes partly from the availability of the printing press and the size of the book market. Dudley argues in Chapter 5 that another factor that affected literacy was the extent to which the main vernacular of a society was standardized prior to industrialization. He uses the first publication date of a monolingual dictionary to measure language standardization. According to this definition, English was codified by 1658 and French, by 1680. Only in the twentieth century were Hindi, Turkish, and Mandarin Chinese standardized (in 1929, 1932, and 1937, respectively). The difference in the timing of standardization played a critical role, because a standardized language would reduce transaction costs and make collaboration easier in the age of urbanization, automation, and mass production.

The rest of the book discusses the consequences of pre-modern language rationalization for innovations in industrial and military technology, drawing examples from the West. Part 2 describes industrialization. Following an overview of each state’s ability to raise revenue reliably (Chapter 6), steam engines (Chapter 7), machine tools (Chapter 8), and rifles (Chapter 9) are examined. Part 3 focuses on the military dimensions: Chapter 10 goes over geopolitics at the turn of the nineteenth century. Chapter 11 discusses steam ships; Chapter 12, major conflicts between European and Asian powers; and Chapter 13, Europe’s overwhelming force of rifled firearms over Asian rivals. The concluding chapter compares the conventional model of geopolitical competition on Europe’s rise to the language hypothesis explored in the book.

One important contribution that Dudley’s book makes is his insight that language standardization is never a “natural” outcome. One reason, I suspect, is that it is hard to imagine how the uniform use of a language can have a direct and positive impact on the desired outcome for political and economic actors — be it greater revenue or greater trade. The monograph makes it clear that few, if any, pre-modern leaders put priority on investing in language standardization, as seen in the case of the Mughal Empire. There was also wide variation in such incentive within Europe, because countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy did not quickly follow the examples of Britain and France. Given the high fixed costs required to standardize a vernacular, what provides an incentive for language standardization? This question does not receive sufficient attention in the monograph. Future research could examine it to provide a fuller conceptual framework and offer an empirical test of the role of culture in understanding the process of economic development.

Dudley is right to underscore the importance of considering cultural dimensions when one seeks to address big questions such as “Why did Europe — or a specific subregion of it — industrialize first?” Here “culture” refers to a broad term that captures patterns of behavior with regard to actors’ choices of technology, codified rules, and policies, which conventional institutionalist arguments have difficulty explaining. For example, the Chinese relied on woodblock printing (a labor-intensive technology) even though a superior technology, movable-type print (a capital-intensive technology), was available. Their choice may in part be based on their shared preference for time-consuming but cheap labor over an efficient yet expensive technology. Future work can build on Dudley’s insight to shed greater light on the origins of European industrialization.

 
Yu Sasaki is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute of Advanced Study in Waseda University, Tokyo. His recent publications include “Publishing Nations: Technology Acquisition and Language Standardization for European Ethnic Groups,” Journal of Economic History, December 2017. He is currently working on how cultural consolidation within states affects political and economic development on the state level, drawing from early-modern Europe.

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Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century