Sunday, 4 November 2012

Lack of Future Shapes Finns' Behaviour

Over a year ago, I wrote a blog-post about the fact that the Finnish language lacks a future tense. In that post, I contrasted this with French, which has 3 future tenses, and asked mischievously: "What does that say about the respective nations' attitude to life?"

Well, it turns out that it might indeed say a lot, if a recent piece of research by an American economics professor is to be believed.

Keith Chen of Yale University found that people who speak a language like Finnish that does not have a strong future tense, actually make more provisions for their own future than people who do not speak such languages. In other words, Finns are more frugal and healthier, because they speak Finnish. Quite an extraordinary claim really!

In his paper, professor Chen compares the behaviour of people of languages with different "future time references" (FTR). Strong-FTR languages are languages, like French and English, that require the speaker to use a future tense to describe future events ("I will go to town tomorrow"). Weak-FTR languages, are languages that do not force the speaker to do so. This includes languages like Finnish that have no future ("menen huomenna kaupunkiin" - "I go tomorrow to town"), but also languages like German that have one ("ich werde morgen in die Stadt gehen") but allow speakers to use the present tense ("ich gehe morgen in die Stadt").

It turns out that, according to professor Chen's research, weak-FTR language speakers, like Finns or Germans, are "31% more likely to have saved in any given year, have accumulated 39% more wealth by retirement, are 24% less likely to smoke, are 29% more likely to be physically active, and are 13% less likely to be medically obese" than strong FTR language speakers, such as Greeks or Americans.

The paper does not really offer any explanation as to why that should be. However, professor Chen speculates that it might be because weak-FTR languages make the future feel much closer and less distinguished from the present, and therefore more real.

He cites as evidence the way the present tense is used in many languages to describe the past with more immediacy (e.g. the typical jokes that start "a man walks [not walked] into a bar"). He also points to some linguistic research that shows that people who have distinctive words for things separate them better than people who don't. For example, Russians, who have very different words for light blue (голубой - goluboy) and dark blue (синий - siniy), do better than English speakers in distinguishing blues when the two colours span the goluboy/siniy border.

In short, the Finns paradoxically have a good future ahead of them because they have no future!

On the other hand, I as a Franco-Englishman....

Reference: "The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets", Keith Chen, Yale University, School of Management and Cowles Foundation (2012)



  1. I would argue that English is actually a soft-FTR language, as it uses purely present tense constructs to form future intent, just as Finnish does.

    'I will' is not future tense: it is an expression of consent, and is present tense.

    Also consider: I am going to town tomorrow. Again, purely present tense.

    1. I am no linguistic expert, but as I understand it, the distinction made is whether you can use the present tense to express the future. In English, you can't: "I go to the shops tomorrow" is wrong.

      The "will" in English is used as an auxiliary, a bit like the "werden" in German or "zullen" in Dutch.

    2. Time and tense are two closely related but different things. Romance languages have a particular tense for each time. English, while being able to express those same times, is more limited in the tense choice and time is derived from the context.

    3. Wouldn't that be "I am going to go to town", though? That would also technically be in the present tense, but in practice it's more of an auxiliary that expresses the future. This construction could not be used to describe something that is happening right now, and therefore it differs significantly from the non-existent Finnish future tense, which is exactly the same as the present tense: "menen kaupunkiin".

    4. I'd argue that the present continuous is used most often to express, well, a present event that is in process. For instance, if I were to make a general statement about what I'm doing right now, I'd say something like "I am writing this comment." At the time of this writing, I have not yet finished the task, and the process continues. "I am going to town" most often means "I am on the way to town," and refers to the action taken in order to arrive there. As you suggested, however, it can be used to express the future if one specifies when exactly the event will take place. "I'm going to town tomorrow" is, in effect, an expression of the future. Still, this tense's primary usage is just what its name would imply.

  2. The problem is that there actually is an entrenched future construction in Finnish: tulen tekemään "I will do", or word for word "I come to do" (it also has the more word for word sense "I come to/arrive at a position, location, in order to do"). It is frowned upon as a Swedishism, but it is quite commonly used in both written officialese and sloppy spoken language. The prescriptive fiction is that there is no future tense in Finnish, and if you don't use the tulen tekemään construction, it will be seen as good, polished style. But let us not deceive ourselves: in natural spoken Finnish there is a future tense.

    1. This is similar to "I'm going do" in English or "je vais faire" in French, I guess. Those are commonly used, but possibly frowned upon by purists (you won't find them in any verb conjugation book/site).

    2. I could be wrong given my limited understanding of its general usage, but I think what disqualifies this construction as a future "tense" is that it really only works this way with one verb. Saying "tulen tekemään" does suggest a future intent to do something, but the same is not necessarily true of, for example, ",tulen istumaan." To me, that implies physical movement as well as an intent to sit, which is more or less a description of present events. The third infinitive illative is inchoactive, or it refers to something that is beginning, not something that has yet to occur. Again, though, I'm somewhat usure about how well this grammatical description applies to actual usage.

      There are certainly ways of differentiating the present from the future in Finnish, but is this example truly a grammatical tense?

    3. This construction is generally only used when the speaker wants to especially emphasize that something is going to happen in the future. For example, it could be used when contrasting between past and future events, but is unlikely to be used in a sentence like "I will go shopping later today". If the timing of an action can be understood from context or indicated by qualifiers (tomorrow, next week...), resorting to ungrammatical structures is not necessary or even convenient.