Money and LanguageIt is necessary for every monetary reformer to be aware of this parallelism: language is peculiar of a community which shares, or better, agrees upon the same linguistic habits as well as, according to Lietaer (2001), money as an agreement is,

“valid only within a given community. Some currencies are operational only among a small group of friends (e. g. tokens used in card games), for certain time periods (e. g.    the cigarette medium of exchange among frontline soldiers during World War II), or among the citizens of one particular nation (e. g. most ‘normal’ national currencies today). Such community can be the entire global community (as in the case of the US dollar by treaty, as long as it is accepted as reserve currency), or a geographically disparate group (such as Internet participants)”.

The definition of the ontological origin of money – i.e. the answer to the question: what is the conceptual process which made emerge money into human affairs? – is offered by a genealogy of the concept. On a genealogical level, the ontology of money is the result of a semiotic process in exactly the same way as the very interpretation of this post by You, the reader, is a semiotic process.

Indeed, in philosophical terms semiotics is a method from which it is possible to retrospectively infer the relational nature of “money” at the ontological level. According to Charles Sanders Peirce (Peirce, 1867 – 1893), logic is the most reliable method to employ for building a theory of knowledge  and a very informal definition of logic is the study of particular relations amongst symbols represented by signs. In this view, semiotics is the general and continuous interpretative study of signs, which grounds the formulation of every conceivable theory of knowledge and, hence, of every scientific theory, i.e. monetary economics. In this framework, a sign, an object and an interpreter are strictly tight in a dynamic and triadic relation.

The scientific roots of such semiotic process in terms of the emergence of money as debt, viz. the process of interpretation of economic signs in monetary terms dates back to the period 2500 BC – 2000 BC in Mesopotamia, the age in which script and monetary instances as written registrations had emerged for the first time documented by historiography. The consolidation of the city-state gave consistency to Temple Economy or Economy of the Palace together with the first episodes of debt crises. The clay board functions as ‘memorial support’: the exchange – or in other words – the transaction, leaves a mark that lasts in time as a reminder.
What are the consequences of this translation from orality to script in relation to the development of money as we conceive it still today? The original transaction was a living operation carried out in the concrete time of action by means of utterances. However, ministers ministries needed an efficient registration technology other than mere speech for managing increasingly complex accountability. There were at least two main problems: first, the necessity to register transactions and to fix the memory of the registration through time. Secondly, the necessity to translate goods and stocks under a common denominator, viz. the need to reduce their heterogeneity into a comparable homogeneity. In other words, there was not only the necessity to translate goods into quantity of value, but also to find the best technical solution in order to define a dependent variable, namely the quantity of debt. As a result, money as debt arose de facto through the thoughtful semiotic process enabling written registrations in order to solve such practical problems while initiating – as each technology does through its interaction with the user – a still emerging history.

The economy based on script is much more flexible and ductile in registering every detail and leaves fewer interpretative doubts when employed to establish quantities of debt and times of restitution. This is indeed script’s raison d’être. Moreover, if no debt were exactly and rigidly registered, how would it be possible to sustain the new complex economy? How could the new debt economy protect itself against laziness, negligence, frauds, which are all factor suitable for triggering decadence and misery at least in the long run? The technology of script supplies the means for the rising of monetary economy: the “phonetization” of cuneiform script enables to register new details in the loan contract by establishing additional conditions to those ruling traditional generic debt.

Now, the use of written contracts took the place of loans and similar agreements usually made by “taking word” for them, because the new form of transaction is more rewarding for the richest of the two contracting parties, esp. because the former imposes it to the latter. Strictly speaking, the quantity of information storable in the contract took the place of the quality that the interpersonal relations used to occupy at the core of economic activity. In this way, personal knowledge of the contracting parties and mutual self-esteem and trust became less and less important elements necessary for a desirable outcome of the transactions as it is common still today.

Thus, the semiotic process that gave rise to the institutionalized habit of money as debt for the first documented time lasted substantially stable until today.

In conclusion, Marieke De Goede proposed a genealogy of finance, in which the latter is thought of as a “discursive domain made possible performative practices” (De Goede, 2005). Such discursive domain mirrors in the financial world the philosophical tenets that I described by endorsing  semiotics and historiography. In my opinion, the same performative discursive practices developed by means of semiotics in written form brought about the inception and materialization of money as debt.

  • JK

    Why no comments? This is a fine group of thoughts. The concept of money as language could be explored as a truthful means of expressing what one truly values. 

  • Chris Waller

    I wrote a series of essays on this very subject about 20 years ago.

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