Mon cher Baumol

In his correspondance with Jimmie Savage and Will Baumol in the early 1950s, Maurice Allais would write in French and the two Americans would reply in English. Also Italian mathematician Bruno de Finetti started his corrspondance with Savage in French in the 1940s, although he switched to English in the mid 1950s. In addition, it appears from remakrs here and there that people such as Samuelson, Baumol and Savage could read German, that Savage’s Latin wasn’t so bad, but that Baumol apologized not being able to read Latin.

Which all begs the question: In general, how well did American economists in the twentieth century read and speak other languages? Could American professors in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s be expected to read French and/or German? Or was this really an exception?  

Dans l’attente de votre réponse, je vous prie d’agréer, mon cher Baumol, mes salutations distinguées.


6 thoughts on “Mon cher Baumol

  1. Floris, it is indeed very interesting to see economists being almost forced to really be multilingual also because the influx of European economists into the US. I don’t know whether we would be able to give a general answer to your question. Just as an example, Samuelson mentions that through his “imperfect French” he was able to understand that Marcel Boiteux was presenting September 1948 Econometric Society meeting at The Hague a paper that was similar to Ramsey’s optimal taxation result. Roy Weintraub in his 1991 book “Stabilizing Dynamics” (ch. 3) also explores Samuelson’s poor French as the more surface reason for him not to have gone to Liapunov through the work of the French mathematician Emile Picard, which ultimately “could have saved Samuelson and other economists from twenty years of fumbling around not knowing how to prove stability theorems about economic equilibria” (Weintraub 1991, 54).
    Another example: Modigliani knew French and, of course, Italian, but from his correspondence one sees him moving very quickly to write most of his professional letters in English.

  2. Pedro, thanks for reminding me of Weintraub’s Samuelson story. And while it’s difficult to establish the general 20th century story yet, combining your remarks with mine one could perhaps infer that in the late 1940s and early 1950s English was already clearly the preferred and default language of non-French European economists. Would you agree?

  3. My memories are fragmenary but I remember a workshop where Harald Hagemann made the case that German emigré economists would quickly and abruptly adopt English as their professional and sometimes personal language upon arrival in an English speaking country. The relinquished German because of its association with Hitler, so much so that that it was even emotionally painful for some of them to attend a Faust performance in an American Concert Hall. And as a matter of fact the correspondence of Marschak (who, although a Ukranian, can be considered a German by adoption for our purpose) with his former colleague and friends also in exile was all in English.
    And you’re right to make an exception for French. From what I saw in his archive, almost all French economists or political figures writing to an english speaking correspondent would do so in French, no matter what the knowledge of French of the latter was.

  4. Dear Beatrice, Thanks! I somehow had assumed that insisting on French was something particular of Allais. It’s good to know that it wasn’t. Which invites a related question: something like the 1952 conference in Paris, organized by Allais and attended by Samuelson, Friedman, Marschak and others, how would that have been organized? The Americans talking English, the French talking French, and the others choosing the one of the two languages they preferred?

  5. Another element that came into play in the early postwar years was the fact that a number of conferences in Europe, organized to re-start scholarly work, were organized by the USA, and thus likely were required to be conducted in English (e.g. that’s how Debreu came to learn of von Neumann and Morgenstern’s game theory).

  6. Dear Roy, thanks! I must have heard that before, but it had completely slipped my mind. Allais’ 1952 Paris conference was organized by CNRS, so rather instutionally biased to French probably.

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