The Language You Speak Predicts Your Beliefs, Values, and Behaviors

Several weeks back I tweeted the preliminary results from a new research project that uses World Values Survey data to test the linguistic relativity thesis.

The idea that your language constrains how you conceive of the world around you is an old one—attributed originally to Willem von Humboldt but more commonly to Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. It is also one that has enjoyed a recent resurgence in economics, sociology, and political science.

In a new paper, I take a closer look this literature. Here is the first paragraph:

There is an emerging consensus that linguistic structure has a direct, causal effect on speakers’ economic and social beliefs (Chen, 2013; Davis and Abdurazokzoda, 2016; Feldmann, 2018; Ginsburgh and Weber, 2016; Hicks, Santacreu-Vasut and Shoham, 2015; Jakiela and Ozier, 2018; Liu et al., 2018; Mavisakalyan, 2015; Mavisakalyan, Tarverdi and Weber, 2018; Pérez and Tavits, 2017; van der Velde, Tyrowicza and Siwinska, 2015). This paper contributes to this dynamic new literature by uncovering the linguistic origins of nativist public opinion, focusing on how human languages structure the relationship between subjects, objects, and verbs (Dryer, 2013). Languages in which the object of a verb follows the verb encode a concept of distance and difference between subject and object directly into linguistic structure. By contrast, languages in which the object of a verb precedes the verb are more likely to place the subject and object next to one another and also highlight the receiver of the action over the action itself. Contrast the two following two constructions of “I love you”:

(German)   Ich liebe dich
           SUBJ VERB OBJ
           I    love  you
(Japanese) Watashi wa anata o aishiteimasu
           SUBJ        OBJ     VERB
           I           you     love

This distinction between “VO” languages like German and “OV” languages like Japanese has implications for how language speakers conceptualize social difference and distance. By grammatically requiring separation between subjects and objects, VO languages lead their speakers to conceptualize the social world in “us-them” terms. Consistent with this prediction, I document a highly statistically significant correlation between speakers of VO languages and nativist preferences (specifically, opposition to hiring immigrants) using over 200,000 respondents to the World Values Survey, covering over one hundred countries across three decades and controlling for a rich set of demographic features. These results contribute to the emerging literature on the linguistic origins of economic and social beliefs, and also suggest that the very languages that we speak affect our conceptualizations of identity and belonging.

Be sure to download the paper to read more. The results may surprise you.

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