What if the language you spoke caused you to perceive time differently?
Does that sound like magic realism? Close: it’s economics. Some recent research papers published in economics journals – notably a 2013 paper by Keith Chen of Yale and a 2018 paper by three Australian economists – have proposed that languages that grammatically distinguish future from present cause their speakers to plan less, save less, even care less for the environment.
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That sound you just heard was thousands of linguists rolling their eyes and groaning “Whorf”.
Bejamin Lee Whorf was an inspector for a fire insurance company, and he saw that language could cause safety problems. People were careless around empty gasoline drums because they were “empty” – except that, in fact, they were filled with gasoline vapour, which can explode. This spurred him to study and write about language.
Whorf spent time with the Hopi people of northeastern Arizona. He observed that they had no grammatical distinctions for future and past and no way to count periods of time. He looked at their cultural practices and concluded that the Hopi see time quite differently from us, and that concepts that seem obvious to us – such as “tomorrow is another day” – had no meaning for them.
His publication of these ideas in 1939 set the philosophy of language on fire. From Whorf’s proposals and those of his teacher, a Yale professor named Edward Sapir, came what Whorf called the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Its mildest form is that language can affect how we think; its strongest form is that we can’t think about things our language doesn’t let us talk about.
Anyone in sales or marketing knows the difference you make by calling something “used,” “vintage,” “antique,” or “pre-loved”
Over time, these explosive ideas – and much of Whorf’s data – were found to be mostly… empty. In 1983, a researcher named Ekkehart Malotki published Hopi Time, a thick volume detailing his research on the Hopi and their language, which proceeded with a long, slow burn to incinerate Whorf’s edifice of data and theory about the Hopi. And with the demise of the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came a mistrust of any ideas of linguistic relativity.
But Whorf was not wrong about the effect of names on how people treat things. Anyone in sales or marketing knows the difference you make by calling something “used,” “vintage,” “antique,” or “pre-loved”. In recent years, some linguistic researchers have shown how much our vocabulary can affect how we think about things. Experiments by the psychologist Maria Sera found that people who speak a language where something (such as a fork) has feminine gender will tend to describe it with more female-associated terms, while those who speak one where it has masculine gender will use more male-associated descriptions.
We are what we say
Lera Boroditsky, of Stanford University, has amassed interesting data on the effects of how we speak of things, such as that people who speak languages that use the same word for a pair of colours need more time to distinguish between them than ones who have a separate word for each – but they can distinguish between them. Mandarin speakers conceptualise time vertically while English speakers conceptualise it horizontally – but each language could use the other metaphor; it has the words for it.
Can verb forms affect how we think of things? Caitlin Fausey and Teenie Matlock found that if we say a politician “was collecting donations”, we think of them as having collected more than if we say the politician “collected donations”. Manuel Carreiras and others found that, when reading descriptions of people, we recall attributes they are said to have in the present more quickly than ones they are said to have had in the past. So why couldn’t the available verb forms in a language affect how people act in regard to the future – financially or environmentally?
But, as the noted linguist Roman Jakobson said, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Guy Deutscher, in Through the Language Glass, writes about the Matses of Brazil, who encode on their verbs how the speaker knows about the event: from experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay. English doesn’t require that, but does that mean evidence matters less to us than to them? And if it does, does the language cause it or just reflect the priority? Spoken French doesn’t distinguish between “I did that” and “I have done that”, but does that really mean French speakers have different ideas about the past?
Speakers of languages that the researchers classified as strongly future-tense-marking are a bit less responsible with regard to the future
Which brings us to back to the economic studies. Their data are clear: speakers of languages that the researchers classified as strongly future-tense-marking are a bit less responsible with regard to the future. But the association of specific cultural behaviours with speaking specific languages could be due to the relatedness and spread of cultures, as linguist Mark Liberman demonstrated. A 2015 reanalysis of Chen’s 2013 study found that once the relatedness of families of languages was taken into account, the correlation was no longer statistically significant. In bilingual countries, the language members of a household speak correlates with their responsibility to the future, but as Julie Sedivy pointed out, they may choose the language because they prefer the culture.
There’s also the matter of their classification of languages. The studies classify English as strongly requiring future-time reference, by contrast with languages such as German, Finnish, and Mandarin, in which speakers typically speak of the future using present-tense forms. Speakers of “weak future-time reference” languages will say the equivalent of “I have a meeting this afternoon”, or “I am going shopping later today”, or “I fly to Paris tomorrow”, whereas English speakers are constrained to say things like “I will have a meeting this afternoon”, or “I will be going shopping later today”, or “I will fly to Paris tomorrow”.
If you just said “No, wait, I do say all those ‘present-tense’ things about the future,” you’re right. It’s useless to speculate that we could improve our savings behaviour by saying “I’m going to the bank tomorrow” instead of “I will go to the bank tomorrow”. We already do say that. Chen used verb tenses in weather forecasts to shore up his classification, but you can’t generalise to a whole language from one idiomatic context.
Why would using the same words to speak of the future as of the present encourage, rather than discourage, planning?
English is an outlier, though: most of their other “strong future-time reference” languages, such as French, Italian, and Spanish, mark future tense unavoidably on the verb. But there are cultures such as the Pirahã, of the Amazon, and the Hadza, of eastern Africa, that do not distinguish between present and future in verb conjugations but also don’t value saving for the future. The more counter-examples we find, the less likely is the linguistic explanation of the correlation.
Besides, why would using the same words to speak of the future as of the present encourage, rather than discourage, planning? If a language does not have a past tense, does that mean it will be more concerned with its history than speakers of one that does? English, French, and Italian all require marking past tense, while Mandarin and other forms of Chinese don’t mark tense at all. Does this mean that China is more concerned for its past than France or Italy or England?
We can see that when a distinction is required in a language, choosing one option over another will affect how we think of something. We have learned that when a distinction is not required, it can still be made but may take more mental energy to do so. It’s plausible that the way our languages cause us to speak about time may affect how we think and act in regard to the future and the past. But I’m not betting my savings on it.
The story has been illustrated with artworks by the French artist Edouard Taufenbach. His works explore time and memory, reappropriating photos into collage-based artworks.
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