What if the language you spoke caused you to perceive time differently?
Does that sound like magic realism? Close: it’s economics. Some recent research papers published in economics journals – notably a 2013 paper by Keith Chen of Yale and a 2018 paper by three Australian economists – have proposed that languages that grammatically distinguish future from present cause their speakers to plan less, save less, even care less for the environment.
That sound you just heard was thousands of linguists rolling their eyes and groaning “Whorf”.
Bejamin Lee Whorf was an inspector for a fire insurance company, and he saw that language could cause safety problems. People were careless around empty gasoline drums because they were “empty” – except that, in fact, they were filled with gasoline vapour, which can explode. This spurred him to study and write about language.
Whorf spent time with the Hopi people of northeastern Arizona. He observed that they had no grammatical distinctions for future and past and no way to count periods of time. He looked at their cultural practices and concluded that the Hopi see time quite differently from us, and that concepts that seem obvious to us – such as “tomorrow is another day” – had no meaning for them.
His publication of these ideas in 1939 set the philosophy of language on fire. From Whorf’s proposals and those of his teacher, a Yale professor named Edward Sapir, came what Whorf called the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis, commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Its mildest form is that language can affect how we think; its strongest form is that we can’t think about things our language doesn’t let us talk about.
Over time, these explosive ideas – and much of Whorf’s data – were found to be mostly… empty. In 1983, a researcher named Ekkehart Malotki published Hopi Time, a thick volume detailing his research on the Hopi and their language, which proceeded with a long, slow burn to incinerate Whorf’s edifice of data and theory about the Hopi. And with the demise of the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis came a mistrust of any ideas of linguistic relativity.
Read more: BBC