Friday, February 15, 2013
  Non-naive linguist!

Just after I finished typing previous item about the usual linguistic naivete, I heard about a brilliant linguistic insight by Keith Chen at Yale. What's more, it's the sort of insight that I should have caught, since it connects two things I often think about.

Chen's insight: Languages that have a distinct future tense are spoken by people who don't save money. People who prepare well for the future speak languages with a less recognizable future form.
Hypothesis: being required to speak in a distinct way about future events leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. This hypothesis arises naturally if grammatically separating the future and the present leads speakers to disassociate the future from the present. This would make the future feel more distant, and since saving involves current costs for future rewards, would make saving harder. On the other hand, some languages grammatically equate the present and future. Those speakers would be more willing to save for a future which appears closer. Put another way, I ask whether a habit of speech which disassociates the future from the present, can cause people to devalue future rewards.


Why didn't I notice this? I always talk about storage and savings and dams and batteries. Pretty much Polistra's sole obsession. And I've linked linguistic structure to national personality before. I've also discussed future tenses before:
Present tense doesn't work that way because there cannot be a 'pinpoint present'. The hand of time is always moving, and any attempt to say what's happening exactly now is impossible. We understood this instinctively even before we invented clocks! The is ___ing form is the closest we can get to a simple or pinpoint present. I'm pouring coffee means that the pour is happening in the same time interval when I'm talking about it. The short form is actually the more continuous type of present tense. I pour coffee doesn't mean I'm doing it exactly now; rather it tells you that coffee-pouring is my constant tendency or perhaps my job. It's what I do all the time.

Things get weird when the sentence specifies a time. The short form still denotes a constant tendency or job: I mow the lawn on Thursday. But the is ___ing form mysteriously slips into the future: I'm mowing the lawn on Thursday means exactly the same as I'll mow the lawn on Thursday.


I'd only question Chen's assumption that the language controls the behavior. Causation seems unknowable here. Did Germans bring the future closer to the present in language because they're always planning for the future? Or the other way around? Do Russians use a completely separate verb for the future because they drink the future into oblivion? Or the other way around? I can't see a reason to prefer either direction. Far more likely, an innate tendency in the ethnic group controls both behavior and language. If you see the future as a close and important thing, you'll shape both your economy and your language to fit your perception.
 


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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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