Monday, August 04, 2003

The Relative Cultural Power of Languages

My Economist Pocket Handbook has a list of the top 27 countries in book sales, from the year 1999, in millions of dollars. For rough purposes, let's assume that the money spent on books in a language is equivalent to the real cultural importance and strength of said language. We'll also assume, unless stated otherwise, that all book sales in a country are in that country's language. I know this is very quick and dirty but I think the figures mean something.

Book Sales, 1999, millions of dollars

1. English $34,138m (US 26876, UK 4611, 80% Canada 1193, Australia 1165, South Africa 383)

2. German $10,642m (Germany 9806, 70% Switzerland 450, Austria 387)

3. Japanese $9,913m

4. French $3,813m (France 2840, 50% Belgium 488, 20% Canada 296, 30% Switzerland 189)

5. Spanish $3,245m (80% Spain 1929, Argentina 702, Mexico 614)

6. Chinese $3,009m (China 2387, Taiwan 622)

7. Portuguese $2,856m (Brazil 2506, Portugal 350)

8. Italian $2,658m

9. Dutch $1,471m (Netherlands 983, 50% Belgium 488)

10. Korean $1,740m (obviously South only)

Other languages whose countries make the top 27: Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Polish, Danish, and Vietnamese, in order. Non-Spanish languages within Spain, figured at 20%, would be a very solid $482m in annual sales, in the same league as Polish or Danish. If a language can't beat Vietnamese at $339m in book sales per year, it ain't on the list, and if a country doesn't spend as much on books as Vietnam, it ain't on the list either. That means Russian, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and all the Indian-subcontinent languages don't make the cut.

Notice that the amount of book sales in dollars in English, which we are claiming here is at the very least correlated with the cultural strength and importance of English, is not much less than that of the following nine languages combined. Then ask yourself why not too many foreign novels are translated to English.

Per Capita Book Sales, 1999, in dollars

#2 Germany, $120
#3 US, $98
#7 Japan, $78
#7 (tie) UK, $78
#14 Spain, $61
#19 France, $47
#20 Italy, $46

Feel free to read anything you want into this.

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