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Obese? Smoker? No Retirement Savings? Perhaps It’s Because of the Language You Speak

Why can’t the Greeks be more like the Germans? Could it be because they speak Greek? There’s no doubt some nations save more money than others, and plan better for retirement, and watch their collective weight, but the proposed explanations for different levels of future-mindedness have been historical, sociological, cultural and psychological—not grammatical. In this ingenious paper (pdf), though, M. Keith Chen argues that syntax plays a role. His analysis suggests that if your language’s syntax blurs the difference between today and tomorrow (as do, say, Chinese and German) then you are more likely to save money, quit smoking, exercise and otherwise prepare for times to come. On the other hand, if you have three dollars in your IRA and a big credit-card balance, it’s a safer bet you speak English or Hausa or Greek or some other language that forces speakers to distinguish present from future.

The point is not that some peoples are futureless—all human beings understand the difference between today and next year just fine, no matter what tongue they speak. But languages, as the linguist Roman Jakobson observed, differ in what they require speakers to think about. As The Economist’s language columnist recently pointed out, in English when I tell you I went to the store, I am free to decide whether I want to tell you that I walked, and that I also came back home, and that I am a man. In Russian, those other details are not optional. If you want to form the verb correctly, as a matter of syntax, you have to get into the details that English would leave to context, body language, or extra explanatory phrases. : “So ‘I went’ would, in one Russian word (khodila, say), express “I [a female] went [by foot] [and I came back].” If you don’t want to express all of that, tough luck.”

Being clear about the timing of your topic turns out to be one of the areas where grammars differ. Some tongues, including English, are strong future-time-reference, or FTR, languages: If Chen, a professor at Yale’s School of Management, wants to say he can’t meet you tomorrow because he has a seminar, he has to say “I am going to listen to a seminar.” On the other hand, others are weak FTR languages. In Mandarin, Chen would say Wˇo qù t ̄ıng jiˇangzuo (“I go listen seminar,” where “go” just means that he’s heading over, nothing to do with when).

Chen theorized that weak-FTR languages would be more conducive to future-oriented behavior because, in those grammars, the future feels the same as the present. Linguists have mapped strong and weak FTR languages in Europe, so Chen correlated that information with data on behaviors that sacrifice present pleasures for the future self, like saving, exercising and avoiding tobacco (culled from the World Values Survey, the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, and the OECD‘s trove of reports on economic behavior since 1970).

His results are rather mind-boggling: In Europe, speakers of weak-FTR languages (German, Finnish and Estonian are examples) were 30 percent more likely to have saved money in a given year than were equivalent speakers of a strong-FTR language (English, Spanish or Greek, for instance). (To put that in perspective, according to Chen’s analysis, speaking a strong-FTR language is as a big a risk-factor for not-saving as unemployment.) Weak-FTR language-speakers have piled up an average of 170,000 more euros per person for their retirement than  strong-FTR speakers, and are 24 percent less likely to have smoked heavily, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese. The weak-FTR speakers even had stronger grips and great lung capacity than did those whose grammar forced them to mark the difference between today and tomorrow. National records reflect individual habits too, Chen writes: “Countries with weak-FTR languages save on average six percent more of their GDP per year than their strong-FTR counterparts.”

This argument will likely give linguists and other social scientists conniptions (for one thing, Chen’s obesity and overall-health statistics suggest that certain languages are inherently healthier to speak than others).

How might they fend him off? One avenue of resistance to Chen’s idea is, obviously, to suggest that language differences are simply a reflection of cultural or political tendencies, and that those are the real drivers of national differences. But Chen says he controlled for other possible factors by a statistical analysis that compared perfectly equivalent people. In other words, he compared weak-FTR speakers to strong-FTR speakers of the same religion, nation, gender, income and education level: If one of those traits explained differences in savings rates or health behaviors, then people with that trait should have come out the same, regardless of their language. Instead, the weak-versus-strong FTR distinction held for every group.

Interestingly, speaking a weak-FTR language didn’t make people more likely to say they thought the future was important.  Plenty of strong-FTR speakers say they too cherish values like saving for a rainy day. Apparently, though, people who speak weak-FTR languages are more likely to actually do something about this principle. If language simply tracked cultural values, Chen argues, then people who valued saving money should show the same behavior regardless of their syntax. Instead, weak-FTR speakers who value thrift save more than strong-FTR speakers who valued thrift. That suggests that mere grammar, outside of people’s awareness, is influencing their behavior—regardless of what they use that grammar to say about themselves.

Mind research has its trends, like any other endeavor. When I was in college, the pendulum had swung strongly toward a preference for big, universal perspectives: The hottest and hippest thinkers were out to elucidate Language, not any particular language, and the Mind, not any particular neighborhood’s minds. Studies of behavior below the level of the entire human race were just stamp-collecting. It has been some time since the pendulum swung back, and in 2012 it’s entirely respectable again (as it was in 1912) to say that minds are molded by the particular times and places where they live. But the notion that people’s grammar could be having an effect on lifelong behavior that is outside their awareness (and independent of their conscious thoughts about their values) is an amazing leap.

Illustration:1958 Hungarian postage stamp of a (perhaps strong-FTR speaking) grasshopper partying away for the summer while the (maybe weak-FTR-speaking) ants prepare for winter. Hungarian, by the way, is a strong-FTR language. via Wikimedia.

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