Evolution, linguistic determinism, and economics

As I mentioned in the post below, this was originally written in early 2014 shortly after the article in question came out. However I wanted to christen this blog with this old content.

A paper by an economist came out recently in the American Economic Review that made some seemingly outlandish claims and got a ton of press. The paper claimed that the way your native language conceptualizes the future tense influences your outlook on the future so strongly that it leaves a detectable signal in country-wide consumption data. Linguists, with tongues somewhat in cheek, have dubbed this “Whorfian economics” after the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the early twentieth century that language determines thought by limiting how categories are conceptualized in the mind. In my opinion, the claims made in the paper are not supported by valid evidence, because the models do not account for relatedness among languages and therefore overestimate the variation explained by future tense structure. Here’s why:

Some languages are obligated to mark the future tense with an inflection or particle (for example, English “I will go shopping tomorrow,” Italian “Domani faro’ le spese”). In contrast other languages either have no explicit future tense marker (Mandarin for “I will go shopping tomorrow”) or often simply express future events in the present tense (German “Morgen gehe ich einkaufen”). Languages like English and Italian are classified by Chen as “strong-future” languages, while languages like Mandarin and German are “weak-future” languages. According to Chen’s hypothesis, the “strong-future” distinction between present and future causes speakers to conceptualize the future as more distinct from the present — less tangible and less real. Therefore, they supposedly find concerns about the future less urgent and are less likely to save money. However, the correlation Chen found among future tense type and saving rate was largely driven by a single clade: the Germanic languages. They are all classified by Chen as weak-future, except for English which subsequently evolved an obligatory future marker — the verb-turned-grammatical particle “will.” Additionally, they are spoken in rich, financially conservative nations. Their shared recent common ancestor (about 2500 years ago) and contiguous geographical distribution confound any relationship between tense and saving rate.
Above is a phylogeny I made of the languages in Chen’s dataset, with the saving rate shown by the length of the colored bar (color indicates tense type).

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