The costs of ignoring language change

Quite a few people have already responded to Keith Chen’s paper, but as far as I can see, none have highlighted a rather glaring problem with Chen’s claims: Chen completely ignores the hard-won insights about language structure that have emerged from research on language change, especially grammaticalization studies.

If I understand Chen right, he’s arguing for a direct, causal (‘Whorfian’) link between language structure and ‘habitual behavior.’ As he writes, ‘my findings are largely consistent with the hypothesis that languages with obligatory future-time reference lead their speakers to engage in less future-oriented behavior.’ Continue reading

Stuck in the futureless zone

The Yale economist Keith Chen has made quite a stir by his claim that there is a connection between grammatical marking of the future and future-related behavior: in short, that speakers of languages which mark the future save less and care less about their health. The purported explanation is that obligatory marking will make the future seem more distant and thus less important to care about. A paper on the topic, forthcoming in American Economic Review, is available from his homepage; in addition, there is a TED talk and numerous media reactions which can easily be found by googling.

This touches me personally since the linguistics that Chen bases himself on is to a significant extent taken from my own work and that of the EUROTYP Tense and Aspect group that I led in the nineties (Dahl 2000a). Continue reading