Does language affect public policy?

1 Feb

I loved the movie Arrival. I particularly liked all the geeky references to topics like the Fibonacci series and Sanskrit etymology. It would not give anything away to say that the plot turns on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which asserts that your native language shapes your cognition in important ways. This is highly controversial view, and my sense, from talking to linguists, is that most of them reject strong versions of hypothesis.

However, there is some evidence for weaker versions of the hypothesis. Which brings me to this recent paper in The American Journal of Political Science title: “Language Shapes People’s Time Perspective and Support for Future-Oriented Policies.” Here is the abstract:

“Can the way we speak affect the way we perceive time and think about politics? Languages vary by how much they require speakers to grammatically encode temporal differences. Futureless tongues (e.g., Estonian) do not oblige speakers to distinguish between the present and future tense, whereas futured tongues do (e.g., Russian). By grammatically conflating “today” and “tomorrow,” we hypothesize that speakers of futureless tongues will view the future as temporally closer to the present, causing them to discount the future less and support future-oriented policies more. Using an original survey experiment that randomly assigned the interview language to Estonian/Russian bilinguals, we find support for this proposition and document the absence of this language effect when a policy has no obvious time referent. We then replicate and extend our principal result through a cross-national analysis of survey data. Our results imply that language may have significant consequences for mass opinion.”

(Hat tip to Boing-Boing)

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