How "futureless" languages impact political thought

There are certain languages that don't differentiate between the present and the future. Estonian is the classic example of a "futureless tongue." According to new research by Efrén O. Pérez, co-director of Vanderbilt University's Research on Individuals, Politics & Society Lab and Margit Tavits, professor of political science at Washington University, language has a sizable impact on how we think about future-oriented policies. As William S. Burroughs said, language is a virus. From their scientific paper in the American Journal of Political Science:

Can the way we speak affect the way we perceive time and think about politics? Languages vary by how much they require speakers to grammatically encode temporal differences. Futureless tongues (e.g., Estonian) do not oblige speakers to distinguish between the present and future tense, whereas futured tongues do (e.g., Russian). By grammatically conflating “today” and “tomorrow,” we hypothesize that speakers of futureless tongues will view the future as temporally closer to the present, causing them to discount the future less and support future-oriented policies more. Using an original survey experiment that randomly assigned the interview language to Estonian/Russian bilinguals, we find support for this proposition and document the absence of this language effect when a policy has no obvious time referent. We then replicate and extend our principal result through a cross-national analysis of survey data. Our results imply that language may have significant consequences for mass opinion.

Notable Replies

  1. English doesn't have a true future tense either, and does not obligatorily mark the future in all cases. Language Log has an interesting discussion of the hypothesis that future tense marking affects forward-looking behavior in native speakers.

  2. This sounds pretty bogus to me. Just because something is not explicitly called out by some grammatical rule, does not mean speakers are unaware of it. French, for example, often prefers the present tense in cases where English require a progressive conjugation. For example, literally, "I watch television" instead of "I was watching television". French speakers are perfectly capable of telling whether the action was ongoing, in the past or in the present. In English, authors who describe action in the past using the present tense are not incapable of keeping track of time; they using language to convey immediacy.

    This kind of linguistic analysis gets debunked on a regular basis. Maybe it's time to stay skeptical.

  3. Four centuries of use as a verb not enough for you?

    The seed of this hearbe remooveth the tough humours bedded in the stomacke, how hard impacted soever they be.

    — Pliny the Elder, Natural History; trans. Philemon Holland, 1601.

    The desire for a more inward light had found expression at last, the unseen had impacted on the seen.

    — E. M. Forster, Howard's End, 1910.

  4. I'm a Japanese to English translator/interpreter by trade. Japanese (along with Chinese, which I don't speak) is frequently given as an example of a "futureless" language in these kind of hypotheses and they are always, without fail, completely unmitigated bullshit.

    Yes, Japanese doesn't have a future tense. Yes, there can be some confusion about the exact timing of an event when one is describing something in a "non-past" tense. But this is exactly why Japanese has a plethora of words to indicate timing that don't exist (or are far less used) in English.

    Saying that someone's grammar inherently changes the way that they think about politics or economics is reductivist, orientalist and frankly, kind of stupid. There are far better ways of analysing East Asian culture in sociological terms that don't boil down to "I did, like, a year of Japanese during college and they totally don't have a future tense, so that is why they, like, totally think in the now."

    The languages in question do not have a grammatical future, sure, but you can bet your arse they have a whole bunch of temporal words that fill in the gaps.

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