To say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.
“All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”
This got Chen wondering: Is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, Chen wanted to know: does our language affect our economic decisions?
Chen designed a study — which he describes in detail in this blog post — to look at how language might affect individual’s ability to save for the future. According to his results, it does — big time.
While “futured languages,” like English, distinguish between the past, present and future, “futureless languages,” like Chinese, use the same phrasing to describe the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Using vast inventories of data and meticulous analysis, Chen found that huge economic differences accompany this linguistic discrepancy. Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers. (This amounts to 25 percent more savings by retirement, if income is held constant.) Chen’s explanation: When we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.
But that’s only the beginning. There’s a wide field of research on the link between language and both psychology and behavior. Here, a few fascinating examples:
Navigation and Pormpuraawans In Pormpuraaw, an Australian Aboriginal community, you wouldn’t refer to an object as on your “left” or “right,” but rather as “northeast” or “southwest,” writes Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky (and an expert in linguistic-cultural connections) in the Wall Street Journal. About a third of the world’s languages discuss space in these kinds of absolute terms rather than the relative ones we use in English, according to Boroditsky. “As a result of this constant linguistic training,” she writes, “speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.” On a research trip to Australia, Boroditsky and her colleague found that Pormpuraawans, who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, not only knew instinctively in which direction they were facing, but also always arranged pictures in a temporal progression from east to west.
Blame and English Speakers In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broke eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice bent toward punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims, Boroditsky argues.
Color among Zuñi and Russian Speakers Our ability to distinguish between colors follows the terms in which we describe them, as Chen notes in the academic paper in which he presents his research (forthcoming in the American Economic Review; PDF here). A 1954 study found that Zuñi speakers, who don’t differentiate between orange and yellow, have trouble telling them apart. Russian speakers, on the other hand, have separate words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). According to a 2007 study, they’re better than English speakers at picking out blues close to the goluboy/siniy threshold.
Gender in Finnish and Hebrew In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all, Boroditsky writes in Scientific American (PDF). A study done in the 1980s found that, yup, thought follows suit: kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)
This doesn’t surprise me. I’d also propose that since Chinese has no plural nouns, only context, that a greater sense of belonging to a group or community is present among native Chinese speakers, while English speakers feel more individualistic.
So I feel like everyone should immediately go read Ted Chiang’s amazing SF short story "The Story of Your Life," which is about learning an alien language that has an emphasis on knowing how the sentence about to spoken will end — which leads to an overall advanced understanding of time itself.
It’s a fantastic story. It’ll massively fuck with your mind. Read it.
“In the end, Captain America does not make the heroic sacrifice, thus further proving that Black Widow can handle the emotional weight of being a lead character. As if anyone could really forget the most quoted line in “The Avengers” — “I’ve got red in my ledger; I’d like to wipe it out” — it helps to have that line fresh in your mind when deconstructing what Widow does in the final act of what’s billed as a Captain America movie. Black Widow doesn’t wipe out the red in her ledger. No, she blasts her ledger out to the world, like it was the grisliest email forward of all time. We know from here heart to heart with Hawkeye that the shame she feels about what she’s done is real, and she hesitates when she realizes that taking down the bad guys means revealing her secrets. But she does it anyway, because she’s not just a spy anymore; she’s a super hero, and she makes a super hero’s sacrifice.”—
I didn’t even think about it at the time but yeah, Natasha being the one to reveal SHIELDS, and her own, secrets probably took more courage and self sacrifice for her than carjacking an alien in the middle of a galactic sized batte.
“WHY DO THEY ALWAYS SLICE THEIR PALM TO GET BLOOD. do you know how many nerve endings are in your hand?!?! why don’t they ever cut the back of their arm or their leg or something omfg”—
me everytime a character in a movie has to get a few drops of their blood for some ritual bullshit (via jtoday)
WHILE WE’RE AT IT, why do people try to cross those skinny bridges over lava/chasms/whatever by walking upright. IT’S CALLED CENTER OF GRAVITY. get on your hands and knees and crawl across that thing. HUG IT. SCOOT YOUR BUTT ACROSS. “but i look stupid!” lalalala but we’ll avoid that ~dramatic moment~ where you almost fall over and die because your damn fucking self wanted to look COOL
yes, mr. action hero, I am aware that running dramatically from the baddies at breakneck speed is important, but know what else is important? NOT GETTING SHOT. RUN IN A FUCKING ZIGZAG PATTERN ON THE OFF CHANCE THAT THE MOOKS WERE NOT COACHED IN MARKSMANSHIP BY THE IMPERIAL STORMTROOPERS.
“I could show them, when they’re old enough. I can say ‘This is his first episode on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and this is the prom episode where I realized I really liked this guy, then Mommy freaked out and we didn’t date for a year.’”—Alyson Hannigan when asked “Will you ever give your kids a how-I-met-your-dad talk?” in an interview with TIME. [x] (via mossomness)