The latest on the Whorfian morphology of time

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Take a look at Astghik Mavisakalyan, Clas Weber, and Yashar Tarverdi, "Future tense: how the language you speak influences your willingness to take climate action", The Conversation 3/7/2018, which is a re-presentation for a general intellectual audience of a technical paper by the same authors that appeared a month earlier,:Astghik Mavisakalyan, Yashar Tarverdi, and Clas Weber, "Talking in the Present, Caring for the Future: Language and Environment", Journal of Comparative Economics February 2018.

And both of these represent the latest in a line of research inspired by a paper originally published by M. Keith Chen in 2012 as a Yale working paper, and discussed in a series of LLOG posts:

"Keith Chen, Whorfian economist", 2/9/2012 [Geoff Pullum]
"Cultural diffusion and the Whorfian hypothesis", 2/12/2012 [Mark Liberman]
"Whorfian Economics", 2/21/2012 [Keith Chen]
"Thought experiments on language and thought", 2/22/2012 [Julie Sedivy]
"Keith Chen at TED", 2/20/2013 [Mark Liberman]
"Keith Chen animated", 9/7/2013 [Mark Liberman]

(The original working paper is no longer on line, but an updated version was published a year later as "The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets", American Economic Review 2013.)

I don't have time today to discuss the Mavisakalyan et al. papers in detail, but if I did, I'd start by exploring the question that Keith, Julie and I discussed six years ago, namely (in Keith's words) " the possibility of something like co-diffusion (correlated adoption) of both language and non-linguistic values, culture, or institutions". Obviously this possibility is not news to Mavisakalyan et al. — as Keith wrote, it's "really the central concern of all work done in modern econometrics" — but it's still worth thinking through the issue in this domain.

And I'd also want to explore the question that Geoff Pullum raised, namely the fact that FTR ("future time reference") usage is more linguistically  complex than a binary strong-FTR/weak-FTR indicates.

[h/t Eli Anne Eiesland]



  1. arthur waldron said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

    I'm an ignoramus. What ever happened to the Whorf Sapir hypothesis. I gather that brilliant as it was it turned out to be wong. Can someone enlighten me? Arthur

    [(myl) See Wikipedia on "Linguistic Relativity", or the LSA's page on "Language and Thought", for discussions of the history, the issues, and the current state of things. Or see "Rescued debate" for links to (some pieces of) a 2010 Economist debate on the topic between Lera Boroditsky and me, with Lane Greene's assessment:

    If I had to sum up in plain English my conclusion would be not "language shapes thought" (much less "language restricts thought"), but probably "language nudges thought" (in certain circumstances).


  2. Eli Anne said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

    Arthur – the strong Sapir Whorf hypothesis is not really believed by anyone anymore – linguistic determinism in the sense that language completely controls thought. There's been research done on the "weaker" version though – that language can influence thought.

  3. AntC said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 4:10 pm

    heck, arthur, have you been living under a rock?

    There never was an hypothesis put forward jointly by Sapir and Whorf. So I'm not quite sure what you think it was that was "brilliant". wikipedia has a thorough and well-balanced piece under 'linguistic relativity'. You could follow the link from there to 'Eskimo words for snow' and on to Geoff Pullum's very amusing take-down of the hoax.

    Sapir-Whorf (or some version of it) is much more the stuff of dinner-party philosophising or, it seems, of economists, than of anybody who's studied language seriously.

    Economic theories premissed on the 'happiness-maximising rational actor' have never been experimentally proven. So Economics (particularly the liberal-markets variety we've been experiencing 1980's on) is built on sand. No wonder it crashes regularly, doesn't deliver benefits to the bulk of the population, and is a hissing and a byword to anybody who isn't blinded by ideology. Economists have been trying to justify their nonsense by appeal to psychological factors (including language) since at least Weber's 'The Protestant Ethic …'..

  4. Gary Lupyan said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 5:57 pm

    There was never a "strong Whorfian" hypothesis as articulated by Whorf (and certainly not by Sapir). There was therefore no linguistic determinism hypothesis to disconfirm in the first place. Here is a video and a couple review papers for those in the flavor of some contemporary work on the subject:

  5. Gary Lupyan said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 6:03 pm

    As for "Geoff Pullum's very amusing take-down of the hoax" (@AntC), as amusing and well-written as I find Pullum's chapter I'm afraid he got the causality backwards. The point is NOT that languages will tend to lexicalize distinctions that are — for whatever reasons — culturally important. Of course that's true, although it's of note that it's only recently that the link between temperature and words for snow (well, of a sort), has been actually demonstrated:

    The point is that a person exposed to a certain lexicalized distinction may learn the categories denoted by the lexical pattern DIFFERENTLY than a person not exposed to the lexicalized distinction… in a strong form this would hold even if the two people have all the same experiences except for the linguistic ones. This indeed has been demonstrated in the lab:

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 7:50 pm

    From the Conversation article:

    According to our estimates, a change from a present- to a future-tensed language results in a 20% decrease in an individual’s propensity to help safeguard the environment.

    Hang on a second. Are they actually claiming that the environmental politics of bilingual individuals changes when they switch languages? Surely not; surely this is just a clumsy way of saying that compared to native speakers of present-tensed languages, native speakers of future-tensed languages are 20% less green.

    Or is it?

    …if Greece were to switch from a future- to a present-tensed language, the stringency of its climate change policies would be at the level of Sweden.

  7. D.O. said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 10:34 pm

    Wow! 20%. Call Prof. Gelman. How did that happen that carefree English speakers needed RAPs? And developed the most robust stock markets (Dutch might have been there first and they are listed as weak-FTR, but it seems that they used to be on the strong side).

  8. PS said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 10:45 pm

    Is this the working paper?

  9. Peter said,

    March 11, 2018 @ 10:55 pm

    Ah, the ludicrous yet persistent "speakers of a language with a future tense are thriftier" bullshit rears its ugly head again. I expect other factors include how many words a language has for shrubbery and whether or not they distinguish green from other colours.

  10. Graeme said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 3:04 am

    Why assume a less distinct future tense marker is more 'future oriented'? For a start 'tomorrow' is a rather different prospect than say the nebulous future or decades beyond my lifespan. And why (if anything) would downplaying future tense in language not lead people to elide the importance of planning for a future; to treat it as something to be eaten now?

  11. Eli Anne said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 10:45 am

    Graeme, my thoughts exactly. The opposite hypothesis would make just as much (little?) sense.

  12. BZ said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

    English is not a future-tensed language. "We go to the movies tomorrow" is not any weirder than "We go to the movies right now" ("we are going" is the better way to say both of course). The "will" (or "shall") auxiliary is entirely optional in most cases. So English is merely somewhat behind German in losing its future tense-ness. What does this mean for the hypothesis? If language represents underlying beliefs, and a language feature is in the process of going away (or emerging) does this mean the corresponding cultural facet has disappeared (or appeared) and language is catching up? If so, how do we know there aren't zombie features in a language for a mindset that no longer exists?

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

    Forgive, please, a completely off-topic question, but how does one elect to receive notification of follow-up comments by email if one does not post a comment in the first place ? There are many topics in which I am interested, but few in which I feel qualified to offer any input.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 12, 2018 @ 6:22 pm


    The "will" construction is not just optional, it's modally different. The present tense implies certainty, the "will" construction strong prediction.

    This is the case whether or not they're referring to the future, e.g. "That's the milkman at the door" v. "That'll be the milkman at the door".

  15. Terry Hunt said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 7:10 am

    @ Philip Taylor
    I don't know what the LL etiquette is, but on other sites with similar functionality people routinely post brief comments along the lines of "Posting merely in order to receive email notifications."

    However, it may be that, being fascinating but scholastically specialised and advanced, LL has so many lurkers (like myself) unqualified to comment on most topics that such a practice would swamp the comments thread.

  16. BZ said,

    March 13, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

    That is true to an extent. "Daylight saving time will begin tomorrow" is not a prediction, but anyway, that just bolsters my case that will is not even a tense marker. Though it is required in some cases.

  17. Mark S said,

    March 17, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    After I read Pullum's "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax", I would challenge anyone who brought up the 'fifty words for snow' thing. But one time I did this, a friend gave me an printout from a reputable dictionary of such a language, actually listing over 50 words for some sort of snow. So next time the subject came up, I now took the opposite tack, now claiming that there were indeed 50+ such words, and exhibited them. However, my collocutor examined the list and pointed out that there were really very few different roots there, and probably no more than we have in English — confirming Pullum's original (but not very serious) point. If he's reading this, he's probably very amused.

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