The Causes of Poverty (65): Grammar?

This has some appeal as an explanation of national differences in poverty and wealth, but color me skeptical nonetheless:

Keith Chen, an economist from Yale, makes a startling claim in an unpublished working paper: people’s fiscal responsibility and healthy lifestyle choices depend in part on the grammar of their language.

Here’s the idea: Languages differ in the devices they offer to speakers who want to talk about the future. For some, like Spanish and Greek, you have to tack on a verb ending that explicitly marks future time—so, in Spanish, you would say escribo for the present tense (I write or I’m writing) and escribiré for the future tense (I will write). But other languages like Mandarin don’t require their verbs to be escorted by grammatical markers that convey future time—time is usually obvious from something else in the context. In Mandarin, you would say the equivalent of I write tomorrow, using the same verb form for both present and future.

Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self. (source)

I can see what Chen is doing: if your language makes a sharp distinction between past, present and future tenses, then you’re likely to divide your thinking the same way. Hence, you’ll pay more attention to specific concerns in the future. As a result, you’ll plan, you’ll try to foresee future states and you’ll arm yourself against risk. All this will tend to increase your future prosperity. If whole nations act like this because they speak the same language, then this may be an explanation of part of the differences between national wealth.

However, if viewed together with all the other possible explanations of poverty, this one doesn’t really stand out as one that is potentially important. I’m convinced that institutions, geography, trade etc. play a much bigger role, big enough to swamp micro-cultural causes such as language. Also, if Mandarin isn’t “future-oriented”, then how come China is so successful in the struggle against poverty?

More posts in this series are here.