Does our grammar influence the way we think?

by Jeanette Sakel

New findings by an economist suggest that there is a difference to people’s money-saving behaviour, which relates to whether or not their language has (obligatory) marking for the future tense:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21518574

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(found on the BBC website, 23.2.2013)

I subscribe to language influencing the way we think (and behave). There has been rigorous and exciting research, e.g.  conducted by linguists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (Levinson et al). I used to work there as a postdoc more than 10 years ago. Yet, while such influence is quite clear for languages with different systems of directions (comparing those like English that use north/south versus those that distinguish facing the river/away from the river), but does it really relate to grammatical categories such as tense? I would love it if this came out to be robust and true – yet I’m feeling slightly uneasy as to whether all linguistically relevant aspects really have been taken into account. In the article, it is mentioned that the Russian data might have been misrepresented. Unfortunately, such misrepresentations have in the past led to bizarre theories (and as an Amerindianist my first thoughts go to Greenberg’s highly controversial classification of the languages of the Americas into a mere 3 language families – which was based on very shaky data). I’ll have to have a look at the research paper, to see how the results have been arrived at!

What do you think? Is this plausible?

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5 comments

  1. … and taking this thought process further: does the other connection also exist, namely that our culture influences and/or restricts our language (cf. Everett’s work on Pirahã grammar. He’s arguing that the cultural restrictions of the Pirahã are directly traceable in the grammar of the language)? In that case, it would mean that cultures more keen on saving are less likely to have an obligatory future tense (or may lose it more easily) – as opposed to those in which saving is less important….?

  2. By way of (as French has it) ‘encouraging the others’ to join the blog, here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. I tend to be on the other side of the fence in the language and thought debate. Even though English famously has no one-word equivalent for German ‘gemütlich’, I think I can grasp what it means (combining convivial, sociable, cosy etc.) – and, with respect to grammar, though you have to translate ‘I ran across the road’ in French by saying the equivalent of ‘I crossed the road running’, this does not prevent one from conceptualising the action involved. It is certainly the case that learning another language can open your eyes to different ways of seeing the world – and that is one of the great reasons for doing so. But the idea that we can only think along the tramlines that language dictates for us seems deterministic and unlikely to me. Jeanette’s comment about culture influencing language seems much more likely. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce described language as having three components, not just the Saussurean dyad of the sign and the signfied, but a sign, the thing signified and an interpretant. The ‘sign’ points at a potential meaning – but it is how that sign is interpreted in the (cultural) context that yields the meaning. How this might relate to cultures which save and cultures which do not and the future tense is not entirely clear to me – I’ll be interested to pursue the blog to find out….

  3. After having read the research article, I’ve become much more convinced that there is something to this correlation. The author, Keith Chen (http://mba.yale.edu/faculty/profiles/chenm.shtml), controls for a whole range of variables and “ifs and whens”. The linguistic research he bases his study on is rigorous and trustworthy typological research. Sure, some of the things said about linguistics are a bit basic – e.g. the rate at /order in which children learn the future tense could be explored in more detail and more relevant references could be added; the same is the case for new research in the Sapir/Whorf framework. Yet, the overall argument is quite convincing as a first step – and I particular like his approach of combining rather diverse fields and looking for answers through innovative methods. All the knowledge we have in typology today can really nicely be compared to other factors. I think this paper is just a beginning!
    So far, the reactions by some linguists may have been negative – but I think this will change. At least Chen has shown that novel ways of looking at good old data can be eye-opening.
    Be convinced yourself (especially suitable for students who’ve had statistics training 🙂 )
    http://faculty.som.yale.edu/keithchen/papers/LanguageWorkingPaper.pdf

  4. It is quite interesting to see how much this paper is trashed by my fellow linguists. I don’t think that’s fully justified, as I like the underlying idea. The other linguists’ argument is that the tense distinctions of English (well it had to be English – always the only example!) have not been considered in enough detail. Out come the often cited exceptions. Some say they fear that this paper will lead to other – more rigorous (i.e. “linguistic”) papers – being dragged down. I don’t think that will necessarily be the case. I think this paper poses interesting and valid questions. In future, let’s collaborate and come to new results, rather than trash any attempt at a fresh view (from outside the field) right from the start…

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