DP15454 Vernacularization and Linguistic Democratization

Author(s): Christine Binzel, Andreas Link, Rajesh Ramachandran
Publication Date: November 2020
Keyword(s): economic development, Inclusive institutions, Language, Protestant Reformation
JEL(s): E02, N13, Z12, Z13
Programme Areas: Macroeconomics and Growth
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=15454

The use of a language in written and formal contexts that is distinct from the varieties used in everyday communication - such as Latin in early modern Europe and Standard Arabic in the Arabic-speaking world - comes with benefits, but also with costs. Drawing on city-level data on all books and pamphlets published in Europe between 1451 and 1600, we document that the Protestant Reformation led to a sharp rise in vernacular printing, such that by the end of the 16th century, the majority of works were printed in spoken tongues rather than in Latin. This transformation allowed broader segments of society to access knowledge. It was also associated, as we show, with a significant diversification in the composition of authors and book content. Finally, we provide evidence that an increase in vernacular printing at the city level is strongly correlated with higher population growth - a proxy for economic development - and in the birth of notable innovators and creative individuals. In this way, we argue that the vernacularization of printing was an important driver of European dynamism in the early modern period.