Posts Tagged ‘Language’

One Cʘsmos: Why Are People Such Assouls?

February 17, 2012

I thought I invented a new word with unique spelling today (Feb 17, 2012).  “Assholyishness” note the ‘y.’ It is quite possible this blog beat me to the punch. So, disappointing.

One Cʘsmos: Why Are People Such Assouls?.

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If You’re Fat, Broke, and Smoking, Blame Language | Motherboard

February 9, 2012

We Americans tend to spend more, save less, and carry more than a few extra pounds as compared to the rest of the world. We’re not alone; the Greeks, for one, have similar traits. Meanwhile, folks like the Germans are fitter, thriftier, and save more for retirement. The Chinese blow us away when it comes to saving money, and their savings rate continues to surge. What’s the deal? It’s long been acknowledged that some groups are better at focusing on the future than others, but explanations are usually based around a mix of history, culture, and psychology. But could it be language’s fault?

That’s the argument posed by this wonderful conversation-inducing paper (PDF) written by M. Keith Chen at Yale. Chen posits that the differences between cultures’ approaches to savings, health, and other long-term issues are rooted in grammar and syntax. In essence, he says that some groups don’t care about having an empty IRA and smoking a pack a day because the way they talk makes the future seem far enough off to ignore.

David Berreby at Big Think breaks it down well:

Being clear about the timing of your topic turns out to be one of the areas where grammars differ. Some tongues, including English, are strong future-time-reference, or FTR, languages: If Chen, a professor at Yale’s School of Management, wants to say he can’t meet you tomorrow because he has a seminar, he has to say “I am going to listen to a seminar.” On the other hand, others are weak FTR languages. In Mandarin, Chen would say wo qu ting ji angzuo (“I go listen seminar,” where “go” just means that he’s heading over, nothing to do with when).

The issue is not that English speakers don’t realize that the future exists. But because strong-FTR languages like English or Spanish make a greater distinction between the present and the future, we may be more likely to ignore long-term consequences and trends. But for a weak-FTR language, like German or Finnish, may make speakers feel like the future is more immediate.

Chen’s data are pretty striking. Based on info from various world reports, he found that weak-FTR speakers saved 170,000 more euros on average than strong-FTR speakers. Those weak-FTR folks were also 13 percent less likely to be obese, 24 percent less likely to smoke heavily, and 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly. The trends are noticeable at the national level too: Chen found that countries with weak-FTR languages saved six percent more of their GDP on average than countries with strong-FTR languages.

Of course, hopefully at least of few of you are thinking “correlation doesn’t equal causation” right now, and you’d be right. It’s tough to tell whether the way a language’s syntax references the future actually affects how people respond to that future.

The premise that how we speak determines how we think is not a new one: previous studies have examined how language correlates with spatial and color perception. But, as Chen notes, the idea has been mostly dismissed by linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, who argue that humans have an innate set of mechanisms for learning language, constraining all human languages to conform with a “universal grammar,” and making it hard for differences in language structure to affect cognition. “There is no scientific evidence that languages dramatically shape their speakers’ ways of thinking,” concluded Pinker.

The language differences could certainly be a result of broader historical or cultural trends. Hell, it could be that peoples culturally or historically predisposed to spending cash, refusing to save, and eating terribly like they don’t give a damn about the future would build their language around trying to put off the reality of the future as best as possible.

But the study offers a different look at how us humans are continually shaped and affected by language and culture at large, and provides some interesting food for thought. When I say a cheeseburger and a pint sound really good, perhaps I’m being more literal than I think I am.

via If You’re Fat, Broke, and Smoking, Blame Language | Motherboard.