You save what you speak?

Oct 25, 2011 by

As noted in a number of previous postings (see here and here), recently more and more non-linguists come out with research involving language. And very often, whether it’s biologists, physicists or economists that make claims about language, they lack the background to understand the linguistic issues they comment or rely on. Speaking of economists making claims about language, here’s one recent example.

Behavioral economist Keith Chen from Yale University investigates how people make financial decisions; his most recent theory is that people save more or less according to the language they speak. In particular, he proposed that people whose native language makes fewer distinctions between the future and present might think differently about the future and therefore make different financial decisions. According to his “study” (if you can call it that!), Greeks are not good at saving for the future — individually or collectively, as a nation — because their language “requires a separate future tense”. According to Chen, “having a separate verb tense for your future self might make your future self a little harder to relate to”.

Here, I will not even address the absurdity of the claim about the connection between grammatical properties of a language and the financial decision-making processes of its speakers, which essentially goes back to the strong version of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis which states that the language one speaks puts one in a sort of “mental jail”, determining completely what one can think about and how one can think of it. This hypothesis has been all but discredited. Now, a weaker version of this language-determines-thought hypothesis, namely that the language one speaks “gently nudges” one in the direction of thinking in certain habitual ways, is worth considering, provided one can control for cultural factors that may affect language or thought, or both.

But let’s focus for the moment on Chen’s methodology. In order to prove a correlation between two factors (and let’s not forget that correlation does not mean causation!) one has to define both factors very clearly. As pointed out in John McWhorter’s response to Chen’s study, the latter misclassified a number of languages such as Russian (the article doesn’t state how Chen classified Russian, but based on his theory, I would guess that he treated Russian as a language with a separate future tense, since Russians on the whole are not much better than the Greeks about saving for the future).

According to the reports I’ve seen (and perhaps I am missing something crucial in Chen’s study), his linguistic variable is whether a given language “requires a separate future tense”. But what does he mean by it, I wonder?

Let’s consider how languages differ in terms of expressing futurity. First of all, it must be noted that

“it is relatively rare for a language to totally lack any grammatical means for marking the future. Most languages have at least one or more weakly grammaticalized devices for doing so” (Östen Dahl and Viveka Velupillai in WALS)

Where languages do differ is exactly in the means of expressing futurity and whether such expression is obligatory or optional. Therefore, it is much more reasonable to consider, as the WALS does, whether a given language has an inflectionally marked future tense. According to this definition, English does not have a separate (inflectionally marked) future tense; an auxiliary verb is used instead, as in It will be cold. In contrast, French does have an inflectionally marked future tense, as in Il fera froid demain, where the verb form fera itself expresses futurity (cf. the present tense fait).

However, the problem for Chen is that this feature does not correlate with people’s savings habits the way he wants it to. In particular, English and German end up on the same side: both do not have inflectionally marked future tenses, but use auxiliaries instead. Similarly, Romance languages do not all work the same: while Spanish and French, for example, do have inflectionally marked future tenses, Romanian does not. (Let’s also mention in passing that not all future events are expressed in French by an inflectionally marked future tense: for instance, in Je vais faire quelque chose, literally ‘I go to-do something’, the futurity is expressed by a combination of the auxiliary ‘to go’ and the infinitive form of the lexical verb.)

Furthermore, Arabic, which is, according to Chen, supposed to work like English and Greek, is a problem too: different varieties of Arabic work differently in this respect: for example, Tunisian Spoken Arabic does not have any inflectionally marked future tenses, while Egyptian Spoken Arabic does. While Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese languages, as well as Japanese, do not have inflectionally marked future tenses (just as Chen would claim), the Modern Greek — contrary to Chen’s theory, if he’s correct about the Greeks’ poor savings habits in the first place — does not have an inflectionally marked future tense either.

And what of Russian, which Chen supposedly misclassified? According to WALS, Russian has no inflectionally marked future tense. Rather, tense and aspect correlate in an interesting way in Russian. Russian morphologically distinguishes only two tenses: past and non-past. Whether the non-past form expresses present or future, depends on the aspect of the verb: the non-past imperfective (e.g. delajet) expresses present “tense”, whereas the non-past perfective (e.g. sdelajet) expresses the future. Imperfective verbs have a “future tense” expressed by the auxiliary ‘to be’, so that the literal meaning of the Russian budet delat’ ‘will-be to-do’ is ‘will be doing’.

This only confirms that things in linguistics are never quite as simple as an economist or a physicist might assume they are. Whether a language “has future tense” depends on how we define “future tense” and also on which subtleties of the given language and its grammar we are willing to ignore.

One final note on the expression of futurity. According to Chen (as well as WALS), English requires the future tense form (consisting of the auxiliary will/shall + the base verb) to express the concept of futurity. But this is not entirely true either. The concept of the future action may be expressed by using the present (progressive) tense, as in I am going to Paris next month, or even by the present perfect (which typically serves to express past completed actions, as in I have painted the house already): think of what you might say to your friends when leaving them at the pub? How about Alrightie, I’m gone?

(By the way, English is not alone in allowing past tense to serve for the “future” needs: for example, in Russian I can use Ja ushla, literally ‘I left’ when I am about to leave.)

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