Linguistic Relativity (aka My Personal Pet-peeve)

This article about how a language’s future tense structure affects its speaker’s savings practices popped up on my twitter feed and sent me into a right tizzy. “Hate” is a strong word, but if there’s one thing I hate it’s Lingistic Relativity theory, aka Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis. I am obviously bias when it comes to lingsuistic relativity, so I’m going to review my virtue epistemology cheat-sheet before I start ranting.

My first objection is Mr. Chen isn’t a linguist or psychologist; Mr. Chen is an economist and therefore he would have needed to do his due diligence by consulting language experts for his study. My second objection is that the TED article is nearly five years old and does not include any rebuttals to Mr. Chen’s findings by psychologists or linguists.

It just so happens I have one rebuttal on hand because reading (or rather listening on audible) to my favorite linguist rip neo-Whorfianism a new one gives me such joy.

In his book, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, American Linguist Professor John H. McWhorter has a short section dedicated to Mr. Chen’s study and includes a graph from the study:


There’s a visibly huge difference between Luxembourg and Greece, but if you exclude those two extremes it looks to me like there’s not really a significantly huge difference between savings rates. If you exclude Luxembourg, then the next two countries with the highest savings rates are South Korea and Russia, both of which Chen marks as languages with future tense markers. This is a problem according to Professor McWhorter

Chen, although making a diligent effort to consult the grammars, was misled by the fact that ultimately, grammars can be unreliable when it comes to explaining whether or not a language “marks the future” as regularly as English does. For example, Chen has Russian as a future-marking language. And indeed, you can get that impression from a grammar of Russian that devotes itself to telling an English speaker that you express the future by doing x, y, and z. However, Russian does not have anything you could call a future marker in the sense of English will or the future tense conjugations you might recall in French and Spanish.

It is part of learning Russian, in fact, to wrap your head around expressing the future by implying it, through bits of stuff that mean other things…In Russian, the future usually piggybacks this way on something else. The details are oppressive and, here, unnecessary, but suffice it to say that while in English the big distinction is between now, then, and later, in Russian the big distinction is between “flowing along” and “bang, right then,” whether in the past, present, or future. The future, in Russian, is largely expressed as one of various takes on “bang, right then.” So, ja pisal means “I was writing,” that is, flowing along writing. But add na– and say ja na-pisal and it means “I wrote”—right then. Tell someone to write something (right now) and you say Na-pishi! In the same way, to say “I will write” you use that same na– bit and say Na-pishu. The idea is that you are not talking about just writing along, over a period of time—rather, you mean you will start some writing. Right now, writing will start.

But this means that in Russian, there is no marker you can think of as being specifically for expressing the future. Russian offers no table of future tense endings to learn. A Russian struggles to explain to an English speaker what “the future in Russian” is, typically resorting to just giving examples like na-pishu whose endings, in terms of conjugation, are in the present tense. True, you can use the be verb to say “I’ll be writing”—ja budu pisat’. This is the kind of thing Chen likely came across…Overall, to learn Russian as an English speaker is to ask, at some point, “How, exactly, do you put a verb in the future?”

So that means that on Chen’s chart, the Russian bar should be white. Now, as it happens, if it were white, that would be good for Chen, because Russians are actually good savers. For him, Russian as a future-marking language is something he has to classify as “noise,” because his idea is that languages that mark the future make their speakers save less money. But this actually creates more, not fewer problems.

Russian is part of a family of languages, the Slavic brood, that largely all work the same way. The facts on the future are the same for Czech, Slovak, and Polish. Predictably from his take on Russian, Chen codes all of them as future marking. Yet on his chart, Czechs are good savers (another problem even under his analysis), while Poles are bad ones, and Slovaks are somewhere in between.

This leaves Chen in a muddle no matter how we parse the data. We might say that even if Russian and friends don’t have a word or prefix like will that is only for future, they do require a speaker to do something to make the future, even if that something can also be used for other things. So, we could say that calling them nonfuture languages is splitting hairs. But then, why are Russian, Czech, Slovak, and Polish spread all the way across the grid? Shouldn’t they, if grammar shapes thrift, cluster?

But then if we accept that these four languages are not future marking and should all be white, then that distribution is still a fatal flaw. What is Polish, in particular, doing way over on the right with the bad savers, when Poles (as I have confirmed in exchanges with a Polish speaker while writing this) have the same hard time telling an English speaker how to “make a verb future” as Russians, and for the same reason? We might add that Czech and Slovak are essentially the same language—why would their speakers be so many bars apart if we are really seeing a meaningful correlation between grammar and having the discipline to save?

Meanwhile, Slovenian is also a Slavic language and, as it happens, it does have an actual future-marking construction. But on Chen’s chart, aren’t Slovenians a little too far leftward in the thrifty realm for people with a future-marker that supposedly should be discouraging them from socking funds away for a rainy day?

And there’s some more. For example, Korean, too, requires an English speaker to give up the idea of a “future marker.” Nothing in Korean corresponds to will—Chen may have gotten an impression otherwise from a suffix that is translatable as roughly “could” or “might.” But that’s not will.

Whether we keep the four Slavic bars black or white, their spreading all the way across the thriftiness grid, in combination with the Korean problem, renders Chen’s chart a randomness. Ultimately, it comes down to this. Given how Chen’s chart actually corresponds with the grammars in question—such as that future-marking Slovenian is right next to Anglophone Australia but twenty-one bars leftward of the Anglophone United States—how plausible is it that the reason savings rates in the United States have been so low has anything at all to do with the word will?

I also noted that Ireland is not clustered with Australia, US, or UK. Another thing that bothers me is that language doesn’t obey country boarders. Languages will have different “shades” depending on how close they are to other languages. A country may have an official language for business, but citizens will speak their native language in the home. The whole Chen study just does not make sense to me.  I think it’s a case of saying it’s the buggy pushing the horse.

Your language doesn’t shape your world view; It’s your world view, i.e. your culture, that shapes your language.



One thought on “Linguistic Relativity (aka My Personal Pet-peeve)

  1. Pingback: Censorship, Anti-shiping, and Reasonable Bounties – A³

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s