Skip to main content

Bankspeak: The Language of World Bank Reports, 1946-2012

About the project

Status: archive

Project team: Franco Moretti, Dominique Pestre;

End date: Mar 1, 2015

  • Bankspeak: The Language of World Bank Reports, 1946-2012

The language of the World Bank Report has shifted dramatically from 1958 to 2008. Particularly during the last two decades, there has been a shift in semantics and grammar, as the language of the reports has become codified, self-referential, and detached from everyday language. This project explored that shift.

In the 1950's, the reports focus on the creation of material infrastructures; today, one finds an emphasis on finances, management, and governance (global, environmental, and civil).

The project described the transition between these two discourses. In the late 1960's, there is a recognition that the landscape is more complex than initially modeled, as the Bank becomes concerned about the feasibility of its investments being repaid. In the 1970's, the reports move from focusing on infrastructures to incorporating other factors, including the human factor: references to farms and cooperatives, and education flourish. Later in the 1970's, the oil crisi becomes visible through the increase in references to debts and borrowing; a causal chain linking loans and development is connected to families and education, along with small farmers. Still, the 1980's are dominated by the debts of the Global South, with an undertone of crisis. A "development philosophy" focused on growth emerged, and the rhetoric of the 90's shifted from stagnation and depreciation towards a focus on the private sector. In general, the language becomes more abstract, and universally applied: the public sector must be restructured to create favorable conditions for private business and the market; the state must shrink and become more efficient -- reflecting an uncompromising liberalism. Looking at word choice, the project noted a high frequency of nominalization in the shift to modern discourse, turning actions and processes into abstract objects. Adjunct nouns proliferate in Bankspeak: operations effectiveness, knowledge activities, country systems.