Language and THE FUTURE

Source: Brainblogger

Source: Brainblogger

Remember the theory of Linguistic Relativity that we talked about a while back? How the language you speak can affect your views of gender, spatial orientation, color, and even your dreams and aspirations? Well, my friend Miles sent me this video that addressed another embodiment of linguistic relativity—language and the future. The language you speak could even shape how you spend or save your money! Here’s how:

Some languages can express the future grammatically, like English: It is cold (present), or It will be cold tomorrow (future).

Other languages do not, and are called futureless, like Finnish: Today be cold (present), or Tomorrow be cold (future).

Yale economics professor Keith Chen surveyed languages from 76 countries across 5 continents, choosing speakers with similar education, socioeconomic levels, religions, etc. He found that speakers of futured languages (like English) are LESS LIKELY to be able to plan for the future, and are less willing to make compromises now for some future benefit (like applying sunscreen everyday to avoid skin cancer later). The present and future are grammatically separated, and thus relatively discordant in a speaker’s mind. Conversely, languages that have the same grammatical form for both present and future tenses make it easier for their speakers to blend the two time frames—meaning that they treat the future just as importantly as they treat the present.

Here are the astounding stats: Speakers of futured languages saved money only 69% as often as speakers of futureless languages; had 39% fewer retirement assets; were less likely to use condoms or birth control; were 24% more likely to smoke; and were 29% less likely to be physically active.

Even when Chen controlled for outside factors like a country’s GDP, interest rates, and unemployment, the results were consistent: the primary indication of a person’s spending patterns is the language they speak.


So, next time your parents harp on you to set up a 401K instead of buying that concert ticket, tell them it’s out of your hands—they should have raised you with a Finnish au pair.

Obviously these results aren’t sweeping across the board. I could stand to be less frugal, and I’m sure there’s a few Finns out there with a propensity for fine wines and Prada purses. But what do you think–is it believable that language shapes our habits?

P.S. Here’s the article that sums up the findings. (The Youtube video is based off it.)

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  • Fascinating. Maybe this is why so many Americans suffer from climate change denial. BTW, the new site looks great!

  • Tyler Geery

    Digging the new site! But I already get new notifications when you post… And I don’t like it when you scold me for not saving money.