22 February 2013

English and Saving

There has recently been lots of attention to work by a Yale professor called Keith Chen who claims that the use of a future tense in a society can predict the amount of money that is saved. (See for example this BBC report. Also, see this posting in Language Log.) For example, German has no future tense, and Germans tend to save lots of money. But in English, we have will to express the future, and people in the UK and USA tend to save less. Apparently, if you conceptualise the future time in the same terms as the present, then you are likely to save money; but if you compartmentalise the future using a different tense, then you are less likely to save money.

This sounds to me completely whacky, though I understand there is some solid research behind it, based on the language used in weather forecasts in different countries. But I have one fundamental problem with it: English does NOT have a future tense. First, will is a modal verb, not a tense. Second, there are many ways of expressing a future action: 'I will leave tomorrow', 'I am leaving tomorrow', 'I am going to leave tomorrow', 'I leave tomorrow', etc. Third, notice that the last example involves the simple present to represent future time.

Let us next consider Malay. Presumably, this is classified as having no future tense, but I don't see any clear evidence that Malay speakers have a tendency to save lots of money. And furthermore, in Malay you can express future time with akan. So, how is akan any different from the English will?

I simply don't understand it. And it seems completely off-the-wall, even if there is lots of good research supporting it.