"It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone, particularly in economics". John Maynard Keynes (1936, The General Theory).

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Prepublication... to make clear what we are talking about

There follows the abstract and small parts of the working paper which will be presented at the 88th Conference «Hellenic Language and Terminology» which will be held in Athens, 10-12 November 2011 (See http://www.eleto.gr/gr/Conference08.htm). The final volume of the conference communications will be published after the conference - the working paper is in English now, but it will be published in Greek too, after the conference. In this prepublication there are missing the footnotes!

Economic activity in Greece without official currency:
The terms and their economies

Irene Sotiropoulou

This paper belongs to an ongoing PhD research project, titled “Exchange Networks and Parallel Currencies: Theoretical approaches and the case of Greece”, which is already in its third-year phase. The project comprises both theoretical study and field research and it focuses on economic activity in Greece which is performed without the use of any official currency. The research faces severe terminology problems, which may be categorised, for analytical purposes only, in:
a) the terms used to describe the activity itself in one language.
b) the terms used in Greek to describe this activity in comparison to the terms used in other languages for same or quite similar activities.
c) the academic terminology on international level concerning all this economic activity and the major problem that this terminology refers to currencies only but not to the rest of the activity.

d) the inexistent academic terminology in Greek for all this economic activity, as the latter has not been systematically studied on academic level so far.
e) the peculiarity of Greek terms already used to describe this activity: not only English or French terms are used, either translated or even transcribed into Greek language as they are, but also several terms seem to be probably originating in Turkish, or other languages.
At the beginning of the research, it seemed that the choice of terminology was a practical issue, which would simply enable the researcher to create a concise view of the topic studied. However, the more the research advanced, the more the terms used acquired a power of their own; they created questions well linked to a multi-dimensional viewing of the economy and at the end, they “demand” to “talk economics” on behalf of their users.


Economic activity in Greece without official currency:
The terms and their economies

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”
L. Carroll, Through the looking-glass


1.a. One language, several terms


...I realised that even when I am not trying to explain terms from one language in relation to another, there is no clear image about those same terms in one language. For example, when we say barter in English or “exchange” in Greek, we mean usually that two people offer and receive at the same time what each party has agreed for the transaction. In real world, this picture is one possible only for barter: time of offers and provisions may vary and this can be an inherent feature of the transaction, f.ex. when the goods offered are produce of earth, the transaction performance follows the natural cycles of seasons. Moreover, people are not really independent individuals searching alone in the world for the best deal: they are usually members of multi-member households with a variety of needs, so it is common that a person offers today a service and as a reward asks for a good that will be used by the old parents living nearby. Or, it is also possible that exchanges are not equal in terms of quantity, quality or (any type of) value, but people keep participating in the transactions because they are neighbours, or because they feel that they cannot ask for more under certain conditions of hardship of the other party, or because they are sure about the quality of the goods and services received, despite the high cost they might have, etc.

A transaction without official currency assists people in taking into account all the above features of real economy, because there is no clear-cut price-taking situation as it exists in conventional economy. People (seem to) become more independent of prices or general economic valuings when they can form a transaction without official currency. Therefore, the stereotype of barter or exchange does not hold in the transactions I am studying. How one could show this by the term usually connected to that stereotype?...


1.b. Greek terms in comparison to terms used in other languages

I am writing my dissertation in English and this has been a choice for making the publication and critique of results quick, because the original texts would be immediately accessible to the academic community even outside Greece. However, this choice made me realise that Greek and English languages, but also Greek and other languages used in the same economic field (mostly French and Spanish) have important features that make the translation of essential terms very difficult or even impossible.

One major difference is the word “economy” itself. In Greek the word is a composed one: “οικονομία” [oikonomia], from the words οίκος [oikos] and νόμος/νέμω [nomos/nemo]. Oikos is in Greek for “household”, nomos is law and nemo is “to share, to divide, to manage, to possess” . As a consequence, economy in Greek means sharing within the household or making law within the household. It is very important to say that in Greek language law is directly connected to sharing. So, distribution is inherent in economy and household is inherent as the space and analytical tool concernıng the economy. However, despite the use of this same word in classical and modern economics, the agents in economic literature are independent individuals and not households, and instead of sharing and law-making, competition and profit-seeking is the inherent idea of economy. The Greek word “oikonomia” is well fit with the schemes I study, if we take into account that they involve members of households and in some cases, households as such. And competition is not the main feature of the schemes, but sharing and distribution, if not redistribution.

Same problems I face with the notion of market. In Greek we use the term “αγορά” [agora] , which in Homeric times meant “gathering” or “assembly”, in classical times it meant the space where the assembly took place while at the same space there were taking place selling and buying activities and in modern times it means the space where selling and buying activities take place. In that sense, “market” and modern “agora” might be the same notion and I should not worry that much.
However, after the first year of my research, my questions reached the core of both notions, as I was asking whether the schemes are economies or markets (αγορές, agores) or whether we could distinguish markets (agores) where we have prices, even if they are set in parallel currencies, and economies, where we have productive activities without necessarily any prices being involved.

At the third year of the research, I realised that the problem in not about whether we have exact prices or not to know whether we have an economy or a market (agora), but the problem was about the meaning of both notions in English and modern economics, built on English language, and Greek and Greek economic reality, built on Greek language.

Therefore, the schemes are not only economies or part of economies, no matter whether they fit the definition of economy of economics textbooks. They are also “agores”, in all three possible meaning I mentioned above: they are gatherings and assemblies, they are places where both assemblies and selling-buying activities take place and they are places where one might encounter prices over the economic activities taking place. However, it would be impossible to translate those “agores” into “markets”.

At the end, I would like to mention the problem which exists in Greek with the term “νόμισμα” [nomisma] which in Greek means currency [monnaie, moneda]. There is no counterpart for “money” in Greek. There is the notion of “χρήμα” [chrima] (meaning “that, which is used or can be used” and it also meant in ancient times the material wealth of a person) which in ancient times comprised all material wealth that could be used in a transaction. But nomisma is not currency either. Nomisma stems from “nomizo”, which means “I think, I create rules for, I legislate”.

Therefore, nomisma is something that has been legislated and something that has been thought of as such. Currency has the meaning of the flow and this is why it is used for all social transactions as well and not only for money. However, nomisma is not for any other social transaction but for economic currency. Mostly, it expresses the legislated economic currency .

Therefore, it is very difficult to make those sharp distinctions in a dissertation written in English about Greek economy. Even when I write about the transactions without the “official currency” I mean nomisma with currency; while in English currency does not mean necessarily the money made as such by legislation...


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