Back to the Future Tense

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Back to the Future Tense

Keith Chen

A Yale

Keith Chen

Keith Chen, an economics professor at Yale

Scientific American is a bit late boarding the train for this one. Keith Chen, an economics professor at Yale, started circulating his unpublished working paper over a year ago. His daring hypothesis: The language you speak actually determines your economic habits. It was only in February when Chen appeared on TED and was then covered by Big Think, sites that tend to traffic in headline-grabbing popular science, that the publicity engine really started to steam ahead.

Nested in Chen’s argument is a pretty wild claim about grammar. Chen, who is not a linguist, proposes that languages with a strong marked future tense can be correlated with – not to put too fine a point on it – lousy decision-making. Conversely, languages with weaker future tense markers are positively correlated with prudential behaviors. A “marker” means something in the grammar rather than the context. So, the upshot is that speakers of a language with no strong grammatical future tense tend to save more, eat better, and even smoke less!

As a number-cruncher, Chen’s data is not to be trifled with. Chen is saying that seeing (or hearing) a distinction between present and future makes a person basically draw an imaginary line between the two time-frames. Because we are creatures of immediate gratification we then push off thinking about the future.

But other implications are no less startling. For instance, if some negative behaviors have a genetic basis and could be identified, then the right language “dosage” could begin at the earliest language-learning stage of development. The child could then conceivably cure her own condition just by the simple and natural act of speaking. Gives new meaning to what used to be called the talking cure.