Published online by Cambridge University Press: 02 March 2020
What kind of economic goods are languages? They are “hypercollective” goods: the more people use them, the greater their use value to all users. People prefer to learn languages with more speakers and will abandon languages which are losing speakers. Culture, defined as the sum total of all texts recorded in a given language, becomes inaccessible if that language goes extinct. The conservation of language and culture thus raises dilemmas of collective action. The world’s thousands of language groups are linked by multilingual speakers. These links constitute a global language system. Exchange of texts between the major and minor language groups in this system proceeds on highly unequal terms.