What the future tense has to do with saving money

Upon reading the title of an Atlantic article, “Can your language influence your spending, eating, and smoking habits?” I was immediately skeptical. I love a Whorfian argument just as much as the next guy (actually, I probably love it much more), but it’s also an easy topic to get carried away with and blown out of proportion.  The article reports on a recent paper by Keith Chen in which he looked at languages’ different ways of differentiating the present from the future (or not), and the behaviors that those differences correlated with.

He found that speakers of “futured” languages, like English, in which the present and future are marked grammatically (we say things like, “it IS cold,” vs. “it WILL BE cold”) seem overall to conceptualize the future and present as more different from each other than speakers of languages in which the verb’s grammatical structure is the same for both the present and the future. He claimed that this difference in conceptualization is evident in behaviors including saving money as well as healthy habits, like eating and smoking, as the title suggests. He even controlled for the country that people lived in, since the claim could easily be made that people of a similar culture tend to behave similarly on many of these measures. He found that in countries where different languages are spoken, the language a person speaks is a stronger predictor of his present vs. future behaviors than the country in which he lives (and the culture of that country).

This short video summarizes the Whorfian claim as well as Chen’s specific findings in a really comprehensive manner for those who aren’t as obsessed with linguistic relativity as I am:

If this is true, then shouldn’t speakers of languages who grammatically treat the past and present as the same also distinguish less between the two? Maybe they’re more likely to make decisions based on past experiences, or maybe they hold more grudges? I anticipate one problem with testing this, though, which is that the languages who don’t differentiate between present and future tenses are probably overwhelmingly the same ones that don’t differentiate between past and present? For example, if a person speaks a language in which all tenses are grammatically the same (like Mandarin), Chen’s paper suggests that he might save more money based on his feeling that the present and future are indistinguishable in some senses. But what if this behavior is, in fact, based on a sense that the past and present are also indistinguishable, and since recalling how hard he worked for that money in the past highly influences him not to spend it now? Time is a messy concept, but Chen’s findings seem so cut-and-dry that it definitely deserves more attention.

Maybe if this guy didn't speak a future language, he wouldn't be having this issue... Image: http://thelaymansanswerstoeverything.com/2008/06/20/diary-of-a-layman-10-spring-2008-past-present-and-future-selves-pt-ii/
Maybe if this guy didn’t speak a future language, he wouldn’t be having this issue…
Image: http://thelaymansanswerstoeverything.com/2008/06/20/diary-of-a-layman-10-spring-2008-past-present-and-future-selves-pt-ii/

And to think that some people think grammar is boring – I bet they don’t think saving money is boring, but the two may not be as disconnected as they at first appear…


Today while I was driving, I noticed a sign advertising: “1ST QUARTER TAX’S DUE ON AUGUST 1 2013.” As usual, the unnecessary apostrophe (and the missing comma, but to a lesser degree) annoyed me, but then I rationalized it: it got the point across and I guess the same skill set isn’t really needed for doing taxes as advertising their deadlines.


After this, I started thinking about how much I love the apostrophe- it can be really handy and help us not only to be more concise (compare “my dad’s hat” to “the hat of my dad”) but also to write in a more casual tone (“don’t” vs. “do not”). We can even leave out letters without looking ignorant (as Dunkin’ Donuts proves… wouldn’t it be awkward if we went to Dunking Donuts?)


Because I was on a particularly boring road, I next thought about the comma, because it’s the same shape as the apostrophe (hence its new title, the “comm’apostrophe”). Instead of allowing us to be more concise, as the apostrophe does, the comma allows us to elaborate by creating lists or by adding dependent clauses, which can add a more formal element to a sentence (i.e., the sentence you just read).

Neither of these marks is totally crucial for understanding  a sentence, and we probably don’t notice their absence nearly as much as we’d notice a missing period or question mark. But they make communication richer and more fluid. For that reason (and at the risk of sounding like a prescriptive linguist), I really hope that their functionality is preserved as the English language continues to evolve.

Or maybe I should just shut up and do my tax’s.

Function Word Maps

A while back I posted some cool maps demonstrating lexical differences across the US. Then, I came across some similar maps in Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us (review soon). His claim is that by looking at the function words in a text (words like and, I, because) we can learn a lot about the author.

In one study, he analyzed about 37,500 essays written in response to a National Public Radio program called This I Believe. The essays were written by people all over the country, and Pennebaker first found trends in the content of the essays- stories about sports were most common in essays from the Midwest, racial issues from the South, and science from the Northeast. More interestingly, he argues, were the variations in function word use. One finding was that people in the middle of the country used the highest rate of I-words, present-tense verbs, and short words, indicators, he claims, of psychological immediacy, characterized by being “in the here and now.” This is shown by the top map (darker colors indicate higher levels of immediacy).

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 9.50.54 AM

The second finding was that people in the middle of the country tended to use words like conjunctions, negations, and prepositions, at higher rates than people in the rest of the country, which reflects analytic thinking and making distinctions between ideas. Again, darker colors show higher usage of the function words that reflect making distinctions.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 9.50.39 AM

Are these findings meaningful? I’m hesitant in taking this as a suggestion that people in the middle of the country tend to live more in the moment and exercise more analytic thinking in the form of making distinctions, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Embodied Language Conflict

Last night, I read a cool paper by Bergen and colleagues on the role of embodiment in understanding language. The idea is that portions of the brain that are used for perception and motor activity also play a role in understanding language via a process referred to as “simulation”.

Variations of the Perky effect can be used to study language understanding. For example, if a person is simulating while understanding language, it may be harder for him to use that same part of the brain in a visual or motor task. This is exactly what Bergen et al. found:

In Experiment 1, participants viewed sentences whose verbs literally denoted up or down, such as “The cork rocketed,” an “UP” sentence. At the same time, they had to characterize pictures of objects that were either located at the top or bottom of a screen. When the objects were located at the top, they were slower to do so, demonstrating an interference effect that may have occurred because they were simulating an “UP” sentence. This effect was also observed for “DOWN” sentences and objects located at the bottom of the screen.

When reading that "the cork rocketed," you probably simulated something in the upward direction, like this. Image: www.thewinectr.com
When reading that “the cork rocketed,” you probably simulated something in the upward direction, like this.
Image: http://www.thewinectr.com

Experiment 2 was the same, except up/down nouns were used instead of verbs. The experimenters again found an interference effect in the same direction. This suggests that the specific lexical entry isn’t what causes the simulation, but instead understanding the sentence as a whole may.

In Experiment 3, sentences containing verbs that expressed metaphorical motion were used (for example, “The prices climbed.”). There was no interference effect, nor was there an effect in Experiment 3, in which abstract, non-metaphorical verbs (such as “the percentage decreased”) were used. Together, these add support to the idea that the meaning of a sentence as a whole triggers simulation, rather than individual words.

Then this morning, I read a post about a paper that counters Bergen et al.’s findings. In the fMRI study reported, participants were shown nouns, verbs, noun-like nonwords, and verb-like nonwords (their endings were what signaled whether they were noun- or verb-like). The authors found that when viewing verbs and verb-like nonwords, participants’ premotor cortices were activated more than when viewing nouns and noun-like nonwords. They took this as an indication that the observed cortical responses to action words result from ortho-phonological probabilistic cues to grammar class, as opposed to embodied motor representations.

But, what about context? We rarely come in contact with words in isolation, but instead with words embedded in the context of a sentence, and sentences in their contexts too. Since the methods in the anti-embodied language study aren’t reflective of the real-life situations in which we encounter language, are they meaningful? How can we reconcile a these two studies?