New research suggests language structure may play factor in personal saving

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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:35
Hebrew to English
Economists shouldn't try to do linguistics... Oct 26, 2011

Interesting article, but deeply flawed.

I think people's spending/saving habits are a little more economic/personality based than whether they play around with verbs in the future tense.

It is also operating under some quite shaky linguistic misconceptions:
Quote "he found that people who speak languages requiring a separate future tense — English, Arabic, Greek, the Romance languages — are far worse at saving money than people whose languages don’t really distinguish between the future and the present, like the Chinese, Germans, Japanese, or Norwegians." (From the original article).

English does not have a future tense. It expresses the future in a variety of ways (use of the modal verb "will/shall", present tense, present continuous tense + any number of time adjuncts + context). German is similar (will - werden), so why English and German are in separate categories, I'm not sure.

I think he would have been better looking at culture and economies, banking systems, any number of factors, but language? - No.

This is just Sapir-Whorf gone wild.

[Edited at 2011-10-26 06:56 GMT]


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:35
Hebrew to English
The Greeks... Oct 26, 2011

Not to mention that the Greeks don't have any money to save, regardless of their language's morphology.

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#JuliaC#  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:35
German to Italian
+ ...
I agree with Ty Kendall Oct 26, 2011

"This is just Sapir-Whorf gone wild."

I would have been more interested if the research focused on the pragmatic linguistic attitude of speakers of different languages when talking about money and savings.. a cross-cultural comparison.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:35
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
What is a tense? Oct 26, 2011

Ty Kendall wrote:
English does not have a future tense. It expresses the future in a variety of ways (use of the modal verb "will/shall"...


If that is so, then Afrikaans has neither future tense nor past tense. Surely a tense is not only a tense if it does not involve extra words?

But I hear your point -- in some languages, a future (or past) event is indicated using contextual information instead of grammatical information. Also, some languages make more comprehensive use oif contextual mechanisms even though grammatical mechanisms may exist in that language.

To use my own language (Afrikaans) as an example again, it is far more likely that an Afrikaans person would say "tomorrow I go to the library" than "tomorrow I will go to the library", or to say "next year I did all these things" than "next year I will have done all these things", even though both ways of saying both these things are possible in the Afrikaans language.

The theory, I take it, is therefore that Afrikaners would better savers because Afrikaners use the present tense to refer to future events, am I right? I wonder what the use of the past tense for a future event would say about Afrikaners' saving habits, though.

Interesting theory...


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Michael Grant
Japan
Local time: 02:35
Japanese to English
This is what passes for "scholarship" these days?! Oct 26, 2011

And from Yale no less...?!

Yes, I have to agree:

Economists shouldn't try to do linguistics...


!!!

So, I guess if I start using my Japanese every day, instead of just during my work day, then I'll "automagically" (defined as: "Automatic, but with an apparent element of stage magic.") start saving more money!!!

Hey! Who'd have thought it could be so easy?!


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:35
Hebrew to English
A tense by any other name... Oct 26, 2011

Samuel Murray wrote:

Ty Kendall wrote:
English does not have a future tense. It expresses the future in a variety of ways (use of the modal verb "will/shall"...


If that is so, then Afrikaans has neither future tense nor past tense. Surely a tense is not only a tense if it does not involve extra words?

But I hear your point -- in some languages, a future (or past) event is indicated using contextual information instead of grammatical information. Also, some languages make more comprehensive use oif contextual mechanisms even though grammatical mechanisms may exist in that language.

To use my own language (Afrikaans) as an example again, it is far more likely that an Afrikaans person would say "tomorrow I go to the library" than "tomorrow I will go to the library", or to say "next year I did all these things" than "next year I will have done all these things", even though both ways of saying both these things are possible in the Afrikaans language.

The theory, I take it, is therefore that Afrikaners would better savers because Afrikaners use the present tense to refer to future events, am I right? I wonder what the use of the past tense for a future event would say about Afrikaners' saving habits, though.

Interesting theory...


This is the thing I found iffy about the study. How to define a tense? From the article I initially gleamed that he probably meant morphologically marked tenses, which is why I questioned his inclusion of English having a future tense.

A broader view, that a future tense can be anything which expresses a future meaning is more liklely, but then surely Chinese with its use of context driven time adjuncts would fall into the category of having a future tense too (and practically every other language too).

I get the feeling he probably read about Sapir-Whorf, found it interesting (it is an interesting theory) and decided to validate it using his area of expertise, Economics....but his lack of in-depth linguistic knowledge is glaringly obvious.

It might have yielded more interesting results had he chosen to compare languages with vastly different concepts of ownership and economics, maybe there's a language out there that lacks a verb "to save". If such a language exists, he could have established whether they also lacked the concept (unlikely but possible) and gone from there.

Even so, it's clinging to a really strong version of Sapir-Whorf that has long been discredited, all humans have the same capability and possibility to conceive of the future and its consequences, and all languages can express anything which another expresses, albeit in different ways.

Personally, I find that the attitude to saving money for the future can differ from family to family, individual to individual, and even for one individual, the instinct to save can change over time with changing conditions, i.e. I save when I have the financial capability to save, if I don't earn enough, I don't save.
I think there are more psychological and sociological theories which can better explain why we save/don't save. Being a linguist, I'm always interested to see how language shapes our actions too of course, but I think this is stretching it somewhat.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:35
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Linguistic relativisim Oct 26, 2011

Ty Kendall wrote:
Even so, it's clinging to a really strong version of Sapir-Whorf that has long been discredited. All humans have the same capability and possibility to conceive of the future and its consequences, and all languages can express anything which another expresses, albeit in different ways.


Sapir-Whorf is never mentioned in the article, so it is possible that the original theory did not prompt this research.

Linguistic relativism is not a deprecated field, and it is only regarded as "discredited" by those who reject it. The belief that all humans have the same capability (even late in life, after their minds have been shaped by various factors, including language), is popular idea in current times, yes, but it is by no means the only kid on the block.


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#JuliaC#  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:35
German to Italian
+ ...
The strong version of linguistic relativism Oct 26, 2011

as Ty said, has been discredited since it implied that linguistic categories could determine cognitive processes, as categorization.

But the weak version is still much appreciated and I also find it very interesting.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:35
Hebrew to English
Clarification Oct 26, 2011

Samuel Murray wrote:

Ty Kendall wrote:
Even so, it's clinging to a really strong version of Sapir-Whorf that has long been discredited. All humans have the same capability and possibility to conceive of the future and its consequences, and all languages can express anything which another expresses, albeit in different ways.


Sapir-Whorf is never mentioned in the article, so it is possible that the original theory did not prompt this research.

Linguistic relativism is not a deprecated field, and it is only regarded as "discredited" by those who reject it. The belief that all humans have the same capability (even late in life, after their minds have been shaped by various factors, including language), is popular idea in current times, yes, but it is by no means the only kid on the block.



Sorry, to clarify, I meant that the strong version of Sapir-Whorf has been discredited, i.e. that you cannot conceive of a concept if you lack the word, or linguistic apparatus to articulate/express it easily. For example, most English speaking people understand Schadenfreude even though we don't have a word for it, and have to circumlocute/borrow.

I'm actually a fan of linguistic relativism in a more watered down form though.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:35
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Some more thoughts Oct 26, 2011

Ty Kendall wrote:
Sorry, to clarify, I meant that the strong version of Sapir-Whorf has been discredited, i.e. that you cannot conceive of a concept if you lack the word, or linguistic apparatus to articulate/express it easily.


I'm no expert in the strong version of the hypothesis, but I get the impression from literature that it is often not so much the hypothesis that is discredited but the examples or specific early applications.

The idea that one can't conceive something for which you don't have a word (or for which you don't know the word) is of great relevance teaching first-year university students. Lecturers may actually apply a variant of strong Sapir-Whorf without knowing it, for whenever students start in a new subject field, one of the first things they should learn is lots and lots of terminology. Because once you know a lot of subject-specific words, you can more easily understand the subject.

One interpretation of strong Sapir-Whorf is that people who don't have words for things (and therefore can't conceive them) can *never* conceive them (i.e. even if they learn new words, or if new grammatical constructs are artificially created in their language), but I think that that is a silly, overeager application of the hypothesis.

For example, most English speaking people understand Schadenfreude even though we don't have a word for it, and have to circumlocute/borrow.


If you ask ten German people to define Schadenfreude, would you get ten definitions or one definition? My feeling is that you're likely to get more than one definition, because a word means different things to different people. In this vein, the existing English words for Schadenfreude may well be adequate for many meanings of the word, and those who claim that none of the English alternatives mean "exactly what the German means" are just being picky.

I'm actually a fan of linguistic relativism in a more watered down form though.


Back to the topic, I think that the researcher neglected to take into account cultural and genetic influences. Chinese and Russian may not be ideal languages to test the theory because they are spoken as the native language only by people who live roughly in the same part of the world and by people with rather similar culture and genetic make-up.

I suspect most Chinese native speakers are of Chinese-like genetic make-up (and may actually share cultural heritage). As for Russian speakers, most of them grew up under communism, even if they are ethnically very diverse. So you can't say that speaking Russian or Chinese is the cause of the way they save.

However, there is an ethnic group of native English speakers that are different from the UK, USA and Australia, namely... India. So if his theory is correct, then Indian ethnic English native speakers in Indian will have the same saving habits as West-European ethnic English native speakrs in the UK or USA, and will have different habits than other ethnic Indians. My guess is that such a study will prove his theory wrong (though it would be fascinating to discover if it even remotely gets close to proving it right).

A similar study can be made of Spanish and Portuguese native speakers from Spain versus Latin America or West Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese native speakers of Latin America and West Africa are ethnically not West Europeqan and do not live in a West European culture, so there is a great opportunity to study this theory there. Again, I *rather doubt* if an ethnically Angolan native Portuguese speaker will have the same (or comparatively similar) saving habits as an ethnically West European native Porguese speaker.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:35
Hebrew to English
Thoughts... Oct 27, 2011

Samuel Murray wrote:
The idea that one can't conceive something for which you don't have a word (or for which you don't know the word) is of great relevance teaching first-year university students.


Seems that the strong version of the theory might have more resonance in pedagogical theory.


those who claim that none of the English alternatives mean "exactly what the German means" are just being picky.


You will always find these type of people, the number of times I've heard something like "this doesn't convey the eloquence of the *insert language here*" or "you can't possibly translate ________", or "_________ is a concept only *insert nationality here* can understand".

Back to the topic, I think that the researcher neglected to take into account cultural and genetic influences.


I agree, I also think he neglected theories from many disciplines that could have shed more light on saving habits than linguistic theory.

I suspect most Chinese native speakers are of Chinese-like genetic make-up (and may actually share cultural heritage).


This is where it gets messy in my opinion. The triumvirate of Language-Ethnicity-Culture is so complex that it is dubious when used in studies like these. For example, take Britain.
Even within the "native" population (discounting multi-cultural Britain as our politicians love to bang on about). We're far from having one language, one culture, one ethnicity. The differences between the Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish are vast, in language, culture and ethnicity. (You made a similar point about the Russians). So it is problematic when comparing us with the Chinese, who do have far more cultural and ethnic hegemony than us.

However, there is an ethnic group of native English speakers that are different from the UK, USA and Australia, namely... India. So if his theory is correct, then Indian ethnic English native speakers in Indian will have the same saving habits as West-European ethnic English native speakrs in the UK or USA


Indians aren't as genetically different from Caucasians as other populations. They are even considered Caucasian by some definitions of race. And I suspect following the Empire they are more closely genetically entangled with us now than before. However, living somewhere with an extremely high Indian population, growing up alongside their culture, I can vouch for the fact that when it comes to economics, they do have quite a different mindset. But this could be for any number of reasons, rather than linguistic.


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Michele Fauble  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:35
Member (2006)
Norwegian to English
+ ...
Future tense and future meaning Oct 27, 2011

Ty Kendall wrote:

English does not have a future tense. It expresses the future in a variety of ways (use of the modal verb "will/shall", present tense, present continuous tense + any number of time adjuncts + context). German is similar (will - werden), so why English and German are in separate categories, I'm not sure.



And why are Norwegian and English in separate categories? Like English, Norwegian has two morphological tenses, but expresses future meaning by means of skal + infinitive, komme til å + infinitive, or the present tense + time adjuncts.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:35
Hebrew to English
Took the words out of my mouth... Oct 27, 2011

Michele Fauble wrote:

Ty Kendall wrote:

English does not have a future tense. It expresses the future in a variety of ways (use of the modal verb "will/shall", present tense, present continuous tense + any number of time adjuncts + context). German is similar (will - werden), so why English and German are in separate categories, I'm not sure.



And why are Norwegian and English in separate categories? Like English, Norwegian has two morphological tenses, but expresses future meaning by means of skal + infinitive, komme til å + infinitive, or the present tense + time adjuncts.



Exactly I was going to mention Norwegian, as I suspected this would be the case, but I didn't want to venture into unknown territory, my knowledge of Norwegian is sketchy.
It's quite hard to take seriously when even basic linguistics has been handled so haphazardly.


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