Back to the Future for Economics?

Ero, eris, erit. Sere, seras, sera. Oh dear, those of you who were subjected to Latin or Spanish in high school may now unfurl from your foetal positions and, according to one recent study, take pride in your forgetfulness. Yes, I have decided to jump on the “analyse Keith Chen” bandwagon, but how can one resist when it’s an oh-so-juicy topic? For those who are unaware, Keith Chen, a behavioural economist and Yale professor, proposed that speakers of languages with fewer distinctions between the future and the present generally are more adept at saving money. Could the language we speak affect our thriftiness and ability to stash away for a rainy day? Abso-bloody-lutely not! Of what horrendous twaddle do you speak? Romantic though his opinion may be, it is severely lacking in elementary linguistic footing. Let me rail at you to explain why. (Yes, it takes 800 words from here, but I promise you that it’s worth it.)

Mr. Chen’s point of view simplified:

Mandarin: no future tense verbs, some of world’s best savings records, second best economy in world, brings you roses even when it’s not Valentine’s Day.

Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.): infamous for infuriatingly fastidious attention paid to verbs and future tenses, Italy and Spain are (not so) black (figure) sheep of EU, “forget” birthdays regularly, but Facebook message you to compensate.

Hausa (language of Nigeria because he is smart and researches): has multiple future tenses, atrocious bank balances, kicks puppies for giggles.

Yoruba (another language of Nigeria): few future tenses, glistening bank balances, likes to visit mother on weekends.

He lists two groups made up of weak and strong FTRs (Future Time Reference) which are as follows:

Weak FTR: Amharic, Dyula, Estonian, German, Malay, Mandarin, Oromo, Sidamo, Yoruba.

Strong FTR: Chaha, English, French, Fula, Gamo, Hausa, Igbo, Italian, Moore, Russian, Tigrinya, Tamil.

This list groups French and English together because according to Chen English and French both have many ways of differentiating between the present and future. However, he fails to explain which criteria he used to categorise. Both French and English do show similarities in that we use “(be) going to …” to express the future, but French generally conjugates its verbs to express the future whereas English does not. In English “be” is really the only major verb that conjugates and it does so into the word “will”. We tag words like “will” as well as “should”, “would”, “plan to”, “might” in front of verbs. These words which express differing degrees of future have no future tense as such. In Mandarin, you will find that the same method is used. Chen argues that in English we have complex future tenses such as the future perfect tense: e.g. “Tomorrow I will have gone to Taipei.” In this sentence “will” is the only verb that has changed to the future. “Have” is present and “gone” is past (past perfect, to be precise). The exact same effect can be expressed in Chinese, though. For example, the participle 了 (le) is used to show that something has finished and 明天 míngtīan means “tomorrow”, showing that the speaker is referring to the future. Therefore, 明天我就会去台北了。 means “Tomorrow I will have gone to Taipei.” Yes, the verb “go” has undergone a transformation, but into the past perfect. We are arguing the future tenses of verbs. The result? Both languages’ listeners have perfectly understood that something will be finished tomorrow. The words may be different, but the comprehension isexactly the bloody same.

Chen claims that “What’s remarkable is when you find correlations this strong and that survive so many aggressive sets of controls, it’s actually hard to come up with a story of what else might be causing this.” Sorry to be the voice of logic Keith, but before you set sail for Africa on your valiant search for The Secret of the world’s bank books, did you bother to check with China’s neighbour and the world’s third largest economy Japan? Japanese, like Chinese, has no future tense as far as verbs go. Anyone who has studied rudimentary Japanese could tell you that a つもり tsumori or 予定 yotei added to a sentence explicitly show that we are talking about the future, but this goes for Mandarin too where 要yào and 会 huì are used in a similar fashion. As Chen so politely pointed out, the English speaking American population are some of the worst savers. However, according to Japan’s Ministry of Finance in 2001 to 2004 Japan and the US experienced only a maximum of roughly 2% difference between their savings rates. Furthermore, a recent survey titled “Opinion survey on daily life” showed roughly 55% of the population were found to be “present-minded” meaning that they think about only that which surrounds their present day life; whereas roughly 28% prepare for their future by investing or saving.

As a linguist, I would love to indulge in the self-aggrandising view that linguistics controls us, but this is not the study to encourage such fanciful thinking. Has Japan secretly invented a future tense that they have not revealed to the public over the last few years? Has it made more use of itstsumoris and yoteis? Has our usage of future tenses waxed and waned every time we splurged instead of stashed? Heavens, no. So why is the economy declining in Japan? Why is its debt 208.2% of its GDP in 2011; whereas Greece, the media’s favourite scapegoat for economic “failure” and serial verb conjugator, is only at 170.6% in 2011? Christ, I don’t know. Do I look like an economist to you? I’m a linguist. You, Mr. Chen, are an economist. Shall we call a truce and promise not to fanny about and excrete all over each other’s fields in the future? Or would doing so ravage my piggy bank?

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