Yale economist Keith Chen has published a report on April, 2013 where he correlates language and economic behaviour. According to Chen, there is a group of languages, named “futureless languages” by Swedish Professor Östen Dahl in 2000, which conflate present and future time within the same verb tense. These languages are used in only 10 percent of the total countries in the world, including China, South Korea, Japan, and countries in Northern Europe. According to Chen, speakers of these languages will tend to regard future as closer to them and their everyday life, making it more tangible and closer to the present. Chen states that this perception of future has a direct consequence on the financial behaviour of individuals, as well as the individuals’ willingness to look after their own health.
The China Example
One of Chen’s examples is the Chinese, who often tend to use the present tense to refer to the future. Chen has found that, even when the country’s communist past is taken into account, Chinese show a strong tendency towards saving compared to other Asian countries in a similar economic situation but with a different linguistic behaviour. In general, individuals from countries like China are 20 percent more likely to state having saved in a specific year than those from countries where future is represented linguistically.
Another common behaviour among “futureless language” users is a more sensitive attitude towards issues such as health and safe sexual behaviour, which are further examples of a greater regard for the future. To eliminate unwanted variables, Chen compared families within the same country, similar in income level, education, size and ages, but who differed in the language they spoke. The results showed that families who spoke “futureless languages” showed 13 percent less likeliness to smoke. The families were also less prone to obesity and more physically active.
Tendencies in Europe
Countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, and France showed low savings percentages, which correlate with these countries’ linguistic tendencies to clearly distinguish present and future tenses. Chen further compared Brazilian Portuguese with mainland Portuguese and found out that Brazilian citizens show a higher tendency to save money. This fact correlates with Brazilian Portuguese development of a linguistic way to talk about the future using the present tense.
Professor Dahl has shown his scepticism by stating that a correlation between how language grammatically shows the future and speakers’ economic behaviour is hard to prove. Dahl also shows some regrets as regards the term he coined: “futureless languages.” According to him, the term suggests there are only two types of languages, when languages are in fact ordered in a continuum according to their variations in the way they each refer to past, present, and future.
Professor Dahl also argues that economic prosperity and tendency towards savings is more related to issues such as culture and religion than language itself. According to him, countries in Northern Europe are economically stronger due to their protestant work ethic rather than the fact that they speak “futureless languages”. However, countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom share these protestant origins, but differ as regards the savings tendencies.