Multilingual economics: The formulaic language of comparisons across time

- Standardisation - Abbreviation - Variation -

The first instalment, formulaic comparisons in English, can be found here.

Narrowly speaking, this is a study in 'contrastive linguistics', minus the technical jargon and abstruse theory of much linguistics. But I hope it is more than that. Looking at contrasts between languages lets us hear the broader echoes of culture and history that lie behind language. It can also be of practical use to people trying to use or learn languages.

The section was begun out of a fascination with ways in which statistical comparisons -- more narrowly speaking, comparisons between current economic data and data of the recent past -- differ in English, Chinese, and Japanese. Despite their widespread use in modern business prose, no one seems to have sat down and systematically analysed these kinds of expression. Even language courses give them short shrift, leaving learners to somehow just 'pick them up'.

And yet it is both instructive and interesting to compare how languages deal with this kind of expression. It helps throw a light on the intersection between grammar and culture, an area that is all too often a no-man's land between linguistics and studies of culture. It helps repulse the idea that linguistics, narrowly defined as syntax, can explain everything about language, and that culture and history do not have an important role to play. On a more modest level, such comparisons can help people sort out how to use these kinds of expression.

In English, comparisons across time typically take the form

Sales in June decreased by 6% compared with the same month of the previous year.

The information conveyed is fairly cut-and-dried. Since it's constantly repeated in business and economic contexts, people are led to find ways to standardise and condense the format and content. What is interesting is the way that languages diverge in how they "package" this information, reflecting both grammar (different resources and different ways of putting sentences together) and convention (different cultural and stylistic preferences).

The "Standard Pattern"

For the purpose of comparison, it's useful to start from a basic grammatical pattern. What I call the "Standard Pattern" is a pattern based on intransitive verbs like 'increase' and 'decrease'. There are other templates -- the 'Adjectival Pattern' (based on adjectives), the 'Transitive Verb Pattern' (based on transitive verbs like 'exceed'), and the 'Prepositional Pattern' (based on prepositions like 'above' and 'below' that directly govern nouns). But the Standard Pattern has overwhelming dominance in the three languages (and probably most other modern languages), and we'll use it as our baseline.

The Standard Pattern contains the following key elements, which, at the risk of creating a boiled lolly effect, I've partly colour-coded as follows:

a) Metric being compared -- 'Sales' (or more strictly speaking 'value of sales').
b) Current period -- 'in June'.
c) Expression of change (including direction of change, etc.) -- 'decreased'.
d) Quantification of the change -- ‘(by) 6%’.
e) ‘Comparison indicator’ -- ‘compared with’.
f) The period of time used as the standard of comparison -- 'the same month of the previous year'.

Our sentence can be colour-coded as follows:

Sales in June decreased by 6% compared with the same month of the previous year.  

Before we look at how this kind of comparison is handled in English, Chinese, and Japanese (Chinese and Japanese still under development), I want to narrow our focus for the sake of simplicity and clarity:

- Our examples will mostly be confined to the six most common time periods:

(1) the previous month
(2) the previous quarter
(3) the previous year
(4) the corresponding month of the previous year
(5) the corresponding quarter of the previous year
(6) the corresponding period of the previous year

There are several other commonly used periods, such as 'half year' and 'year to date', which will only be mentioned in passing.

- Specific values, e.g. ‘Production fell by 6% from 25 million tonnes in the second quarter to 23.5 million tonnes in the third', will be omitted from consideration. (This is admittedly a major omission, but without some limitation the comparison becomes too complex.)

- Quantification will be confined to percentages or percentage points. Expressions like ‘at an annualised rate’ will be omitted.

- We'll largely confine ourselves to the written language.

- All examples will be in the past tense, the most commonly encountered tense in economic reporting.

We'll now consider the way that this is expressed in English.

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