Does the language you speak really affect how you see the future?

Illustration for article titled Does the language you speak really affect how you see the future?

The way people discuss the future varies from language to language. Some have a well-defined future tense, while others distinguish much between present and future. But does this point of grammar actually affect how we see the world?


As you may have seen in some recent reports elsewhere in the blogosphere, that question forms the basis for a new paper by Yale researcher Keith Chen. Chen - who, it should be pointed out, is an economist, not a linguist - is currently working on a paper in which he examines the effect of the future tense in different cultures' future-oriented behavior.

The idea is that some languages have very clear grammar governing the future tense - like in English, how we can distinguish between "I am doing something" and "I will do something" - whereas other languages don't. His hypothesis is that the former, the so-called strong future time references (FTR) languages, are more likely to make poor decisions in terms of planning for the future, which means higher rates of obesity, debt, smoking, drinking, and so forth.

It's certainly an intriguing idea, and it's already attracted some attention despite the fact that Chen hasn't even completed his paper, let alone submitted it for review. That's unfortunate, as there seem to be some real issues with the linguistic data meant to back up the argument. As Geoffrey Pullam points out over at Language Log, it's not actually that easy to cleanly categorize languages as strong or weak FTR.

Sure, English uses "will" to mark future tense, but another valid constructing is, "I am going to", which relies on the present tense verb "am." That isn't a trivial ambiguity, particularly when we're talking about what are supposed to be pretty extreme differences between the two types of languages. And, as Pullam points out, English is one of the most heavily studied languages on the planet - if we can't be sure how to accurately categorize that, what chance do we have for all the others? Indeed, this may just be a case of finding an apparent correlation in some noisy data and then mistaking it for a causal link, as Pullam writes:

I also worry that it is too easy to find correlations of this kind, and we don't have any idea just how easy until a concerted effort has been made to show that the spurious ones are not supportable. For example, if we took "has (vs. does not have) pharyngeal consonants", or "uses (vs. does not use) close front rounded vowels", would we find correlations there too?

Pullam's whole post is worth reading for more on this, as indeed is Chen's working paper. Again, it's worth pointing out that this paper hasn't even been finished, let alone peer reviewed and published, so the finished product might well have some interesting things to say. Until then, it's best to hold off on basing too many personality analyses off of how people use the future tense.

Image by Quinn Dombrowski.

Spotted on Metafilter.



The different English future tenses are actually a good way to demonstrate just how language forms create subtle shades of meaning. Use of the "will future" typically indicates a discrete, definite event in the future. The sun will come up tomorrow (bet your bottom dollar...).

The present continuous used as future ("We're eating at Samara's tomorrow.") indicates a plan has already been made in the past that affects events in the future, which might be why it uses the tense we typically use for actions begun in the past and continuing presently into the future.

The "going to" future is a special case of the continuous future that typically describes a future plan (but not a certain event, like "will"). I'm going to be a dentist when I grow up. I'm going to buy a Vespa.

A language that only had a tense conveying one of these senses may indeed have an impoverished sense of future, just as peoples without words for numbers over 3 or so are literally incapable of conceiving or executing higher mathematics. Language undoubtedly shapes perception.

However, I don't agree with the cultural assumptions the paper seems to be making. I mean, English has all of those nuanced future tenses, but we Americans sure as fuck don't live or govern in a way that is at all considerate of the future.