Recent analysis on Bankspeak

All of you at one point or another would have had to face reports from international organisations. Two academics have analysed 65 years of annual reports from the World Bank and provide some interesting results. Patricia Cohen provides a good article in the New York Times on the findings. This is one EiD definitely recommends to readers.

 

At the World Bank, a Shortage of Concrete (Language)

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that “the whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” He could have been writing about World Bank reports, it turns out.

A computer analysis of more than 65 years of the bank’s annual reports found a sharp decline in factual precision, replaced by what the researchers call management discourse, a bureaucratic gobbledygook whose meaning is hard to decipher.

The trend is probably not a surprise to anyone with a glancing interaction with international institutions. But the numbers and examples are amusing.

Dominique Pestre, a historian at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in France, and Franco Moretti, co-director of the Stanford Literary Lab, conducted the analysis.

They used the lab’s techniques to map changes in the bank’s language, syntax and grammar over time, revealing unspoken patterns, priorities and politics.

The unusual collaboration was hatched in the spring of 2013 when Mr. Pestre and Mr. Moretti, a literary critic by trade, met while working in Berlin.

The result is titled “Bankspeak,” a play on doublespeak, referring to language that is intentionally ambiguous, meant to obscure or confuse.

The most striking discovery, Mr. Pestre said, speaking from his home in Geneva, was the emergence of a language that “does not offer specificities, it remains at a more abstract level.”

In the early decades, for example, bank reports consistently referred to specific places, projects, equipment, tools and activities. Past and present tense verbs were common, marking completed activities and allowing for comparisons.

upshot1

In the last 20 years, that kind of nuts-and-bolts language disappears, Mr. Pestre said. Verbs are turned into nouns – something that linguists have argued converts specific actions taken by named actors into “abstract objects.” (People and countries no longer “cooperate,” for example; there is just “cooperation.”)

At the same time, the use of adverbs that refer to a particular time frame (such as “now,” “recently” or “later”) declined by more than 50 percent. Past tense verbs grew rarer, while jargon and acronyms proliferated.

The pamphlet, which was published by the Stanford Literary Lab and appeared in the New Left Review, will be translated into Italian and German later this year. In it, the authors offer a side-by-side comparison.

“Here is how the bank’s report described the world in 1958:

The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.

And here is the report from a half-century later, in 2008:

Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.”

The 2012 report does not refer to preventing hunger but rather to “food security.”

Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the series of graphs mapping the specific changes in word usage.

As one might expect, some reflect the World Bank’s changing priorities and concerns as well as historical events. For instance, in the late 1960s, when Robert McNamara becomes president and made “the war on poverty” a central mission, references to “families,” “farmers,” “education” and later, “women,” become more noticeable. In the 1980s, when many countries in the developing world are at risk of defaulting on loans, the language of debt becomes omnipresent, and there are frequent references to “expanding trade,” “expanding the private sector” and “raising competitiveness.”

The word “governance” makes its first appearance in 1990, signaling a new preoccupation with ethics, responsibility and rectitude. The language of finance replaces the language of agriculture and industry. In the previous decade, the word “portfolio” is used 10 times as frequently as it was throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

There are other quirks. In 66 years of reports, the verb “disagree” never appears (though disagreement is used twice.) The implication, the authors said, is that “there is only one way to do things” — no alternative policies are possible. And “superlatives are de rigueur,” the essay notes. “People, behavior and results are ‘outstanding,’ ‘significant,’ ‘relevant,’ ‘consistent,’ strong,’ ‘good’ (and ‘better’).”

The analysis did not necessarily produce conclusions startlingly different from what Mr. Pestre had suspected merely through his regular reading, but the statistical confirmation was comforting. Peculiar usages and clusters of words also prompted him to take a closer look at certain phenomena — like the decrease in past tense — that he otherwise might have missed.

Mr. Pestre noted that “the World Bank is not alone in speaking this way.” A similar kind of discourse can be found in most organizations involved in global business, whether the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or the World Wildlife Fund, he added.

“We are not saying it was good, and it’s now bad,” Mr. Pestre said of the evolution in the World Bank’s language. “We are saying that the level of structural change is profound. When that happens, it means: Be aware!”

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