Keith Chen, Whorfian economist

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Language Log has been asked more than once to comment on an unpublished working paper by Yale economist Keith Chen that is discussed in various online sources, e.g. here and here, and most recently David Berreby's post at Big Think. Briefly, Chen's paper alleges that a certain simple grammatical property of languages correlates robustly with indicators of profligacy and lack of prudence, as revealed in the speakers' lack of concern for their financial and medical prospects. Language Log does not really want to comment on an unpublished working paper about language by a non-linguist that is not written for publication and has not had the benefit of serious critical attention from academic referees. But neither does it want to disappoint its readers by clamming up. So I will make a few remarks about Chen's work, and the journalistic reporting that it is beginning to attract. I will not be very rigorous; but as I will explain, it is too early for that.

To reduce it to its simplest elements, Chen maintains a very strong Whorfian hypothesis: he thinks that if your language has clear grammatical future tense marking (and thus is a strong future time reference or strong FTR language), then you and your fellow native speakers have a dramatically increased likelihood of exhibiting high rates of obesity, smoking, drinking, debt, and poor pension provision, as if they had little concern for the future. And conversely, if your language uses present-tense forms to express future time reference (is a weak future time reference or weak FTR language), you and your fellow speakers are strikingly more likely to have good financial planning for retirement and sensible health habits. It is as if grammatical marking of the difference between the present and the future insulates you from seeing that the two are coterminous so you should plan ahead. Using present-tense forms for future time reference, on the other hand, encourages you to see that the future is just more of the present, and thus encourages you to put money in a 401(k). (If you don't have that intuition, don't complain to me; I'm just trying to report to you what Chen claims.)

Chen's evidence on the lifestyle indicators comes from massive amounts of hard data, and his mathematical analysis is serious. His work is not to be immediately dismissed — I am sure it deserves to be properly considered for publication. But I have quite a few concerns about its validity.

Chen uses descriptive data on languages that emanate from Östen Dahl's EUROTYP project, and adopts a classification of English as strong FTR. But English notoriously uses present tense for future time reference all over the place:

Meg's mother arrives tomorrow.
If the phone rings, don't answer it.
My flight takes off at 8:30.
IBM is declaring its fourth-quarter profits tomorrow.

The very example that Berreby gives involves English I am going to + Verb, purportedly illustrating grammatical marking of the future; but of course am is the present tense, so one would have to argue that use of the motion verb go in its idiomatic impending-future sense counts as a grammatical tense marker, which leads to questions about whether the same must be said of am about to and am on the point of and so on. If English has future tense markers at all, it has at least a dozen of different ones; but simple use of the present tense is a very prominent way of referring to future time, so what do we make of that? For my part, I have no confidence at all that English is accurately described as "strong FTR". Nearly all traditional grammarians report English as having a tense system that includes a future tense, but that isn't really true; will is a modal auxiliary that has various other uses too. If the facts are shaky for English, how likely are they to be accurate on languages that have not been studied nearly so intensively?

Chen's thesis is highly brittle and susceptible to counterexemplification. He says that he has been unable to find any counterexamples to his hypothesis, but there is at least one very clear and obvious counterexample. The language of the Pirahã Indians of Brazil, studied by Daniel Everett, has no future tense marking whatever — it is not just weak FTR, it is zero FTR. But, contrary to Chen's prediction, the Pirahã are unconcerned with planning for the future, to a quite extreme degree. The Wikipedia entry says that "They do not store food in any quantity, but generally eat it when they get it," and they "have ignored lessons in preserving meats by salting or smoking." Although they grow manioc plants, they "make only a few days' worth of manioc flour at a time." This is all decidedly in conflict with Chen's predictions, if they are meant to apply to humanity in general.

Another thing about the results worries me. When I engage in amateur reflection on how language might affect thought, I find that I might just as well be convinced that a language with grammatical future tense marking would have speakers who paid MORE attention to worrying about the future. After all, they use a linguistic device that explicitly picks it out. Chen's hypothesis is that instead they would naturally pay LESS attention to what the future might hold in store. Which hypothesis is right? Why is it Chen's favorite that is right? Why don't his results (if sound at all) predict the exact opposite of what he claims, so that only his prediction about the Pirahã is solidly correct?

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? I have some colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh, within Simon Kirby's research group, who have run some informal experiments on the data Chen uses to see if dredging up spurious correlations of this kind is easy or hard, and so far they have found it jaw-droppingly easy. (I won't say any more, because I am in the weird position of writing unrefereed telegraphing of unrefereed and informal objections to an unrefereed and unpublished working paper, and it's all getting a bit too weird for me.)

None of these briefly summarized worries about Chen's work, however, disturb me as much as the appalling journalistic misrepresentations that David Berreby offers us. His title is: "Obese? Smoker? No Retirement Savings? Perhaps It's Because of the Language You Speak." One remark he makes is that "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", which gets things exactly backward. (Chen is suggesting morphosyntactic marking of future time reference in your native language influences you to be profligate, not that your being in debt improves the odds on your speaking Greek!) Another way Berreby puts it (contradicting the foregoing way) is that "certain languages are inherently healthier to speak than others." I know you have to cut corners when writing about science for a general audience, but really.

Berreby's post overstates and misstates the case wildly. And although it is possible in principle to devise empirically testable Whorfian hypotheses (see the discussion by Barbara Scholz and colleagues here), I wouldn't bet a dime on this particular Whorfian thesis. But time will tell. Let me stress once more that there is one thing Keith Chen, David Berreby, my Edinburgh colleagues, and I all have in common: Not one sentence that any of us have uttered on this topic has undergone the crucial process of blind refereeing by independent academic experts followed by an editorial decision regarding scholarly respectability. All of us, at this stage, are simply mucking about. Chen, in particular, needs to wrestle his ideas into the form of a journal article and submit it to see what referees think. Then perhaps my colleagues here can get more serious about their statistical experiments and challenge his proposals.

Update — subsequent posts about Keith Chen:

"Cultural diffusion and the Whorfian hypothesis", 2/12/2012
"Whorfian Economics", 2/21/2012
"Thought experiments on language and thought", 2/22/2012
"Keith Chen at TED", 2/20/2013

[Perhaps if I spoke a different language I would have thought ahead and opened comments.]


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