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Thursday 28 February 2013

Sapir-Whorf Economics: Your Language Predicts Your Future

A Resumption

Apologies for the recent temporary hiatus, been rather busy with that strange thing called real life.  More regular updates from now on but, for a while, they'll be more limited than in the past due to the need to fulfil a book contract.  Still, it’ll be something to add to the Christmas wishlist.

So … let’s look at something really odd, and why, if you’re a useless procrastinator  you should really want to learn German.  It seems that cultural stereotyping may not be quite so irrational as we may have thought …

Speak and Make Money

Keith Chen has recently produced a fascinating new paper entitled The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors and Retirement Assets.  His hypothesis is simple – the type of language you speak may affect your behavior.  In fact, you could argue that what you speak may determine what you think.

This idea has a long history in linguistics and is usually known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.   Which is slightly odd because neither Edward Sapir nor Benjamin Lee Whorf actually advanced the hypothesis.  And if they had then done then they wouldn’t have invented it because other people had the idea first.

And it isn’t a hypothesis either.  But apart from that …

Languages Begets The Thought

Anyway, in essence the argument is that we can only think about things that our language allows us to make salient.  If we don’t have an expression for an idea then it’s not just that we can’t talk about it, but we can’t even think about it.  So language influences, even controls, thought.  Unsurprisingly this theory usually trades under the name of linguistic relativity.

Whorf gave many examples of how the idea might work.  So, famously the Inuit have 50 odd words for snow while someone like myself from England might content themselves with one, and go inside to find some mittens, a nice cup of tea and some cake.  In fact the Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax was debunked by Geoffrey Pullam:
“And actually, when you come to think of it, Eskimos aren't really that likely to be interested in snow. Snow in the traditional Eskimo hunter's life must be a kind of constantly assumed background, like sand on the beach. And even beach bums have only one word for sand. But there you are: the more you think about the Eskimo vocabulary hoax, the more stupid it gets.”
Colorless Green Whatsits

To state that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been controversial is to understate things by a wide country mile.  For a lot of the twentieth century the dominant theory of language formation was that formulated by Noam Chomsky, whose concept of a universal grammar that we all have was widely accepted.  Steven Pinker is, for example, a famous proponent of this approach which argues that we don’t really think in any specific language, but that we have an underlying structure and understanding of concepts which doesn’t rely on any specific language.

Chomsky’s famous example of this is the sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously”: a grammatically correct sentence but one that has no semantic meaning outside the bounds of Jack Kerouac’s fevered imagination, and probably not much inside.  Chomsky’s intent was to show that grammar is not enough to inspire meaning, and that some more structured model of linguistics was required to make sense of language, aka: the universal grammar.

Universal Confusion

Although theory of a universal grammar has been heavily propounded many researchers have found the idea that language has little or no influence on thought profoundly counterintuitive.  It’s a nature versus nurture argument at root, where our innate cognitive structures trump the learning we acquire after birth.  And, as in so many cases where very strong arguments have been put forward on one side or the other of this particular battleground, it’s quite hard to make them stack up: invariably it turns out that both nature and nurture are important, but that the relative effects are hard to disentangle.

Chen’s idea was to see whether Sapir-Whorf might shed some light on the different economic habits of people with different language types.  Languages can be split into a couple of categories – those which require that future events are grammatically marked and those which don’t:
"For example, a German speaker predicting rain can naturally do so in the present tense, saying: Morgen regnet es which translates to ‘It rains tomorrow’. In contrast, English would require the use of a future marker like ‘will’ or ‘is going to’, as in: ‘It will rain tomorrow’. In this way, English requires speakers to encode a distinction between present and future events, while German does not."
Disassociated Bodies

Such a difference may seem trivial, but under Sapir-Whorf it’s not.  What if the very act of separating the present from the future causes the speaker to mentally disassociate themselves from the future?  We’ve seen some quite strong evidence that people aren’t good at caring for their future selves, because they find it hard to recognise themselves as that future person (see Be Kind To An Old Person, Start With Yourself), so anything that makes the future more distant and less relevant may well have an effect on economic behavior.

And, roughly, this is what Chen has found.  People speaking languages which cause future time events to be disassociated from the present tend to engage in a whole host of behaviors potentially injurious to their future selves: they’re more obese, less likely to use a condom, save around 40% less for retirement and save less in general.  Basically if you speak German rather than English you’re a lot more likely to be a slim, wealthy, healthy pensioner.  Although you may not have had quite so much fun along the way …


Of course, the correlation between language type and economic behavior may not be indicative of causality.  There may be some underlying hidden third variable: remember the South Pacific islanders who believed that body lice were necessary to good health.  They’d correctly observed that the lice left the body when it was on the verge of dying, but missed the fact that we don't die for lack of lice but rather because of fever, and lice don’t like extreme heat.

Chen suggests that the likelihood is that the link is causal but holds out the possibility that it’s not.  In particular he notes that these language differences are very old indeed, so if there is some underlying cause of these behaviors it may be buried very deeply in the history of how we come to speak the languages we do.  Perhaps people who spoke about tomorrow had good reason to plan for it?  And maybe language predicts culture?

Who knows.  But if you want a better future life it seems you should learn German and abandon English.  

Related articles:
P.S. There are two known Inuit words for snow: the snow that lies on the ground and the snow that’s floating about in the air.  What else would they need?  And don't mention the yellow stuff ...


  1. What a coincidence! I've been meaning to learn German for ages!

  2. Glad you're back. I follow your posts silently but with great interest.

  3. Glad you're back II.

    Here's to hoping more recur...

  4. Your point is well taken - the language we use affects our thinking and decision-making, but you present it with older linguistic models that do not account for crucial differences between speakers within a language, or non-grammatical influences - like metaphor.

    Cognitive Linguistics accounts for both of these and more in that it addresses the primary concepts. The good news is even though some concepts are more accessible in language than another, we can learn to use more effective ones in our native tongue. I have several sources on this, but am traveling now. Also, a whole book on the topic hopefully later this year.

  5. Hi Charles, I have blogged previously on the power of metaphor - see Metaphors of Mind and Money, but the point is well made. Let me know when the book is out, I'll happily review it.

  6. Pullam link appears to be broken, but this one seems to work:

    Great post, btw...thanks!


  7. My best guess is that there is a strong correlation between your first language and the tales read for you at bedtime as a kid. You may have the Grimm brothers delivering you your first tale about life, or it may be that Lewis Carrol strikes the first spark of imagination in you. My bet is that if the first is true, your language is German, and in the second case English. That these two different starts to life gives different outcomes is no mystery.