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The Daily Tar Heel

Language is not a ‘mental cage’

Why are Greek people fatter than other Europeans? Why are some cultures more frugal than others? Because it’s built into their language.

At least that’s what one economist would have you believe. In a 2011 paper, M. Keith Chen argued that the language people speak determines their ability to plan for the future.

According to Chen’s thesis, speakers of languages that have a distinct future tense — like Greek — are much worse at planning for the future. This results in less saving and more indulgence in eating and smoking, all because their future selves seem just a little further off.

On the other hand, speakers of languages without a distinct future tense are much better at planning ahead, ostensibly because they view the present and the future as the same.

If this sounds outlandish, it’s because it is. The foundations of Chen’s economic research are tenuous, since they invoke a linguistic theory that has been heavily disputed in the last 30 years.

This hypothesis, known as linguistic determinism, asserts that the words and grammatical structure of language form a sort of mental cage around your thoughts. This is by no means a novel concept. The early 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously wrote, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

But in recent decades, linguists have begun to favor a weaker version of the hypothesis that downplays the influence language has on thought.

Steven Pinker made a convincing case against the language-as-a-cage hypothesis in his 2007 book “The Stuff of Thought.” In the book, he discusses a study that examined the Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe whose language has words for just three numerical concepts: “one,” “two” and “many.”

In experiments, the Pirahã proved inept at any task that required keeping track of numbers. They couldn’t draw a line for every battery they saw in a row, and they couldn’t mimic investigators when they tapped on the floor five times.

The study suggested that because the Pirahã lacked words for big numbers, they were unable to conceive them. But correlation does not equal causation, and Pinker thinks it is the other way around: the Pirahã have never needed big numbers, so they never developed words for them.

As Pinker describes, it’s much more plausible that the primitive lifestyle of these hunter-gatherers resulted in a language that lacked numerical reasoning. (Multiple studies have shown that as a culture becomes more complex, it either invents or borrows a counting system.)

At the other end of the spectrum, schadenfreude — German for “pleasure as a result of the misfortune of others” — certainly exists as an idea, if not a single word, in non-German cultures.

In his future-tense study, Chen fails to demonstrate that speakers of different languages actually perceive the future differently, and that his findings aren’t simply a result of cultural differences, or even coincidence.

Language may very well nudge its speakers’ thoughts in a certain direction, but it doesn’t confine them. It isn’t a cage that controls how we think. Ideas power language, not the other way around.

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