Monday, 8 May 2017

It's the economy, stupid!

So I was listening to my BBC local station yesterday. Have you noticed how rather mediocre radio stations make a bit of an extra effort in their weekend programming? Normally this involves some specialist music shows, but BBC Cambridgeshire also has the Naked Scientists . One of the themes of the evening was language, and one of the featured scientists (hopefully not naked) was the economist Keith Chen. The fact he is not a linguistics professor is a crucial thing to note, as well as the fact that he teaches in the school of management and not in the economics department. But I digress.

Keith Chen's main point was that people speaking a language that has an explicit future tense (such as English or Greek) don't save as much money, don't take as much care of their health etc. compared to speakers of languages that don't have a future tense (aparently German is such a language). For the nuanced argument you can read the relevant paper which I have only skimmed through but hey, this is a blog, we don't take ourselves too seriously.

One of his main sources of data is the world values survey. The first thing I notice on visiting their site is the beautiful magic quadrant visualisation known as the Inglehart–Welzel Cultural Map, or occasionally the Welzel-Inglehart Cultural Map. This immediately screams 'Samuel Huntington Clash of civilisations' to me, but I haven't read that book either so I won't get carried away. Just notice how countries are bundled together in mysterious ways: Azerbaijan occasionally becomes orthodox, Israel and Greece catholic, the English speakers are of course exceptionally neither protestant nor catholic even though they could be either or neither, and the colouring does or doesn't always follow the religion, or the cluster, which contorts around accordingly.

So this wonderful source of data proves that future tense equipped languages like the ones mentioned above have speakers that don't plan for the future, and vice versa. The examples quoted included of course the UK and Greece as the worst savers in Europe. This tempted me to use the website facilities to get the table embedded below: 

TOTALCountry Code
Save money42.8%13.9%57.0%
Just get by38.4%66.3%24.7%
Spent some savings and borrowed money9.1%12.2%7.6%
Spent savings and borrowed money6.6%5.8%7.1%
DE,SE:Inapplicable ; RU:Inappropriate response; BH: Missing; HT: Dropped out survey0.2%-0.3%
No answer1.7%-2.6%
Don´t know1.1%1.9%0.8%
To me this data says one thing: People in Germany were well off at the time of the survey, and people in Cyprus were much less well off. When you have money to spare, you save, when you don't you get by, and that has little to do with your language and the way it expresses future events. It has a lot more to do with employment going up or down, banks doing well or being about to collapse, and the euro being too strong or too weak in relation to the country's economic health. In fact Chen went as far as citing Belgium, as an example of where everything else being the same, language is the only factor differentiating people. Perhaps he should check out some call record analysis proving that Belgium is really two parallel societies that meet in Brussels!

I was planning to finish on a note about the sad state of linguistic research but it would be wrong, actually the fact he is in the management school explains the unique blend of positivist prejudice displayed here.

No comments:

Post a Comment