Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Study on Linguistic Determinism

A recent study has reignited the longstanding debate over linguistic determinism. A paper by Yale Professor M. Keith Chen, profiled recently on Big Think, suggests that the language we speak dramatically impacts many of our behaviors, including savings rates, diets, and smoking habits. By correlating future-oriented behaviors (e.g. saving, exercising) with language, Chen found that people who speak languages that include strong grammatical distinctions between past and present—what he called strong future-time-reference, or FTR, languages—exhibit fewer future-oriented behaviors than those who speak weak-FTR languages:
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."
Syntax, it appears, may be destiny, at least in Europe. Not surprisingly, the anti-Whorfians have already cast doubts on Chen's findings.

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