Language Barriers

Founder Bill Bonner

Came the news yesterday that the governor of Cyprus' central bank is a fellow named Panicos Demetriades.

No kidding.

But even though the Central Bank of Cyprus is showing the world – in stark naked detail – how governments will deal with their debt problems, there is no general panic.

Panicos goes about his business... like Ben and Mario... ripping off savers to protect the feds' access to easy cash. In Cyprus, they even stab their major industry – banking – in the back to... what?

Protect their economy? Nope.

They do it to protect the power of the government. The economy can go to hell, which is what will happen in Cyprus. Who will want to keep money in a Cyprus bank now? Only a fool. Or someone who reads the newspapers.

Read the papers, take them seriously, and you are ready to believe anything. The problem is partly a language barrier. The newspapers will tell you that that the authorities "saved" Cyprus... and the entire European financial system.

That is the trouble with the language of public information. The words mean little or nothing. It is just noise. Events are often exactly opposite in meaning to the description given them in the press.

Mots Justes

Someone cuts you off in traffic, and you know just what to say. You have the mot juste on the tip of your tongue even faster than you can raise your middle finger.

But what do you say to ZIRP (zero interest rate policy), which cuts off the earnings from your savings? What do you call QE3, which potentially undermines the value of your savings and your earnings by adding billions to the money supply?

We barely have words for the kind of premeditated larceny done by central banks and central governments. The meaning of them is hidden behind gobbledygook descriptions and noisy public information.

As an aside, the same is true in geopolitical and military matters. One generation learns that attacking one's neighbors is bad business. The next forgets... and begins to invent nice new words to describe bad old habits. We have "surgical drone strikes" now, not assassinations! And we have "enhanced interrogation techniques," not torture.

But it's as hard to come up with something new in military affairs as it is in literature and economics. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" is a direct translation of the Nazis' Verschärfte Vernehmung, right out of the Gestapo handbook.

Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings

Even in simple everyday matters, language is a barrier to understanding. When you talk to people you know, who speak the same language, and come from the same area, you can usually tell what they are talking about. The words give you some of the meaning. The rest of it is supplied by tone, emphasis, facial expression and body language.

We spent the week with friends from France. We speak the language reasonably well. Even so, there are subtle meanings we never understand. It's not enough to know the words. You have to know the context... and the nuances... to get the full meaning of them.

That's what makes cross-cultural marriages and multinational businesses so treacherous: You never know what the other side is really saying! Sometimes it's better that way. Sometimes, worse...

The French are very proud of their language. They despise people who use it badly. Speak French badly to a Parisian waiter, and he will make fun of you... usually in ways you won't understand. Make a mistake in front of a person from the 16th arrondissement, and he will say nothing... but his mouth will betray a slight smile of superiority.

The Argentines – at least in this part of the country – are more generous with their language. We say something to the field hands. They get a quizzical look on their faces. They don't understand what we are saying because the local dialect is different and because we don't speak Spanish very well. But unlike the French, the local people act embarrassed and pained – as if it were their fault that they didn't understand you.

"How many calves did we get this year," we intend to ask Jorge, our farm manager. He looks at us intently, as one looks at a mental defective, struggling to make sense of what he saying.

"Yes, I'll be here on Friday," he replies.

"How many?"

"All day long," he responds.

Regards,

Bill Bonner

Bill


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