Money talk I: Is money just language?

What do money and language have in common? If money is nothing more than “a promise to pay,” as David Graeber puts it, then is it really just a part of language, and not a separate thing? After all, like language, money is expressed in symbols, such as dollar signs and numbers. It can be sent digitally, just like any textual information. 

Just as humans have many languages in which we communicate, money can also be calculated in many ways. Whether we speak of dollars and cents; pounds, shillings, and pence, or work with “special purpose” money, our cultural systems for managing money defy the assumption that money is a purely quantitative entity. 

In fact, money, like language, is a system of signs that is invented and implemented by humans. Treating money as quantitative masks the fact that it is something we have invented, and instead makes money seem like something that has a reality of its own, separate from society. It does not. 

What happens if we stop seeing money as quantitative and objective, and instead view it for what it is, a part of culture and, more specifically, as a part of language?

Money as language

The link between money and language goes well beyond metaphor. Many social scientists have discussed the similarities and connections between language and economics, including philosophers,sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and historians. Language is a major part of what facilitates our habitual use of money – it is part of how we calculate value and how we transact. It helps us make shortcuts in transactions. 

We could argue that money is simply information about value. David Graeber, in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, points out that money is nothing more than a promise to pay, a symbolic system of representation to keep track of who owes what to whom. We record this debt on IOUs, paper notes, coins, tally sticks, and so on, using symbolic systems to share and store information about value, including words, numbers, and currency symbols. General money in its material form, as notes and coins, is essentially no different to these other kinds of signification. Therefore the material form of money is just as much a system of language as are words or text. 

Similarly, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure compared language with economic markets, saying that: 

“. . . even outside language all values are apparently governed by the same paradoxical principle. They are always composed: 
1. of a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined; and 
2. of similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined. 
Both factors are necessary for the existence of a value. .”

For example, in order to know what a Euro is worth, you need to know what dissimilar thing it can be exchanged for, e.g. a few bread rolls, and what similar thing it can be exchanged for, e.g. two fifty-cent pieces or some amount of foreign currency. Similarly, with language, a word can be exchanged for something dissimilar, an idea, but it can also be compared with similar things, other words. 

Marx disagrees with de Saussure, saying that ideas can't be separated from language, whereas money can be separated from commodities. Either way, both would agree on one thing: money is abstract and qualitative, even when it is used for quantitative ends. For Marx, viewing money as objective was a kind of fetishization, since it masked the fact that human relationships are at the core of how money works. And, as I show below, the way we talk about money is far from objective. We tend to talk about money metaphorically as much as we discuss its quantitative properties.

Money as metaphor

Money talk permeates our language and thinking more than we tend to realize. It’s not that we discuss money frequently (depending, of course, on whether your culture encourages discussions about money). Money also influences how we think about things that are not money. 

Lakoff and Johnson (2008), in their book Metaphors We Live By, explain how money permeates our thinking. In the course of our daily lives, we frequently mix money metaphors with other metaphors,and use these to describe other things. Such a use of money metaphors is common in many languages. The table below lists some common money metaphors in English and German that relate money to two other very common sources of metaphors: time and water. 

Money is time



Time is money

This gadget will save you hours

How do you spend your time these days?

That flat tire cost me an hour

I’ve invested a lot of time in this project.

He’s living on borrowed time

Geld ist Zeit – Money is time

Diese Sspiel kostete mich eine Stunde – the game cost me an hour

Dies wird Ihnen viel Zeit ersparen – this will save you much time

Lohnt sich das zeitlich fuer dich? – Is this profitable for you time-wise?

Der Zeitgewinn ist enorm – there is an enormous time yield

Money is water



It’s been a slow start, but sales are beginning to trickle in

We’ve been pouring millions into R & D for the last three years

Ever since the Bank of England lowered interest rates, money has been flooding into the country.

There is a constant ebb and flow of cash in the financial system.

We need to be careful. The financial markets are awash with laundered money

The Government needs to channel more money into Health and Education.

It has become a real drain on our resources

Im Geld schwimmen – to swim in money

Geldstrom – a current of money (like cashflow)

Geldregen – money rain

Geld fliesst auf das Konto – Money flows into your account (and out of it)

Fluessig oder liquid sein – to be fluid/liquid (have cash)

Vermoegen kann abschmelzen –a fortune can melt

Geldquellen sprudeln oder versiegen – springs of money bubble or dry up

Geldhahn zudrehen – to turn off the money tap (or, to have it turned off)

Meer von Schulden – a sea/ocean of debt

Ebbe in der Kasse – low tide in the cashbox

The connection between money and time is pretty clear: we see both as resources. The industrial revolution, the invention of clocking on and off at work, and Taylorist methods of disciplining workers all contributed to the quantification of time and its reconfiguration as a resource instead of simply change.

The connection between money and water is a little more abstract. Water can of course be a resource, but in these metaphors, the link between money and water is more about how those two substances move. Money lends itself well to water metaphors because money is inherently mobile: unless you can take your money to the market (either physically or digitally) and pass it in to another person, you cannot exchange it for goods. These ideas of the liquidity of money have increased with the globalization of financial markets. In high finance, liquidity and rapidity of movement are seen as a positive attribute of money. When markets “move,” it means money is being made; growth is occurring.

Turning money into a metaphor is not just a matter of curiosity: it shapes how we – as individuals and institutions – think about the world. This means that it has economic and political implications, since money discourse is part of how governments, banks, and markets run. I will expand on this idea in a following article, Money Talk II: Language and the financial system.

Further reading

Alejo, R. 2010. Where does the money go? An analysis of the container metaphor in economics: The market and the economy. Journal of Pragmatics 42(4),:1137-1150.

Ashley, L. R. 1973. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice: British slang for pounds and pennies, old and new. Names 21(1): 1-21.

Crump, Thomas. 1978. Money and number: The Trojan horse of language." Man: 503-518.

Dascal, Marcelo. 1976. Language and money. A simile and its meaning in 17th century philosophy of language. Studia Leibnitiana: 187-218.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1966. Course in General Linguistics. Translated and with an introduction by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill (Paperback edition).

Deutschmann, Christoph. 1996. Money as a social construction: on the actuality of Marx and Simmel. Thesis Eleven 47(1): 1-19.

Gray, Richard T. 1996. Buying into signs: Money and semiosis in eighteenth-century German language theory. German Quarterly: 1-14.

Holmes, Douglas R. 2013. Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 2008. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shell, Marc. 1993. Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophic Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. University of California Press.

Simmel, Georg. 2004 [1907]. The Philosophy of Money. Psychology Press.

Wennerlind, Carl. 2001. Money talks, but what is it saying? Semiotics of money and social control. Journal of Economic Issues: 557-574.