Via Mark Thoma
Languages di?er widely in the ways they partition time. In this paper I test the hypothesis that
languages which grammatically distinguish between present and future events (what linguists call strong-
FTR languages) lead their speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. First, I show how this prediction
arises naturally when well-documented e?ects of language on cognition are merged with models of decision
making over time. Then, I show that consistent with this hypothesis, speakers of strong-FTR languages
save less, hold less retirement wealth, smoke more, are more likely to be obese, and su?er worse long-
run health. This is true in every major region of the world and holds even when comparing only
demographically similar individuals born and living in the same country. While not conclusive, the
evidence does not seem to support the most obvious forms of common causation. Implications of these
?ndings for theories of intertemporal choice are discussed.
Unforunately I read that just before bed, so it bugged me all night. Whorfism – the belief that characteristics of a language alter the neurology, thought or behaviour of its speakers. Whorfism, the linguistic equivalent of Austrian Business Cycle Theory ; seductive rubbish readily ensnaring the lazy minded.
Back when I did my own work using language as an explanatory variable I was at pains to point out that the characteristics of the language were of no account. When I thought the idea was arising elsewhere on Troppo I intervened. In that last case I was even using a Future Tense hypothesis like Chen uses, only to mock the idea.
Still Chen (the author) does not appear to be lazy or feeble minded. He’s certainly aware of the esteem in which the Whorf Hypothesis is held. So I think it’d be wise to treat this as legitimate, but in my mind probably spurious research. I still think the economics of language, or linguoeconomics is ripe for more research. If this opens up the doors a little, it only does good.
At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum critiques Chen on the linguistics. Interestingly:
When I engage in amateur reflection on how language might affect thought, I find that I might just as well be convinced that a language with grammatical future tense marking would have speakers who paid MORE attention to worrying about the future. After all, they use a linguistic device that explicitly picks it out. Chen’s hypothesis is that instead they would naturally pay LESS attention to what the future might hold in store. Which hypothesis is right? Why is it Chen’s favorite that is right?
The alternate hypothesis Pullum is actually the one I used to mock Whorfism here, the reverse relationship Chen proposes would never have occurred to me [fn1]. Earlier he uses the Pirahãas a counterexample to Chens hypothesis when I used as an example of false correlation (the “small tribal group”) .
His Stable mate Mark Liberman merely focuses on the potential for spurious correlation. Chen graciously responds on the same blog, but I think their skepticism is well warranted…..even if they appealed to my preconceptions.
[fn1] Which weakens the findings in a Bayesian light I guess.