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New Study: In Some Languages, The Future Is Now

According to a recent study published in The Journal of Linguistic Chronistics, a language known as Silghen may provide groundbreaking insights on the relation between human cognition and temporal perception. The language, spoken in a remote corner of Western Europe, may show that the ability to think about the future is not a universal human trait. In the study, the authors write that “The verbal system of Silghen shows not only that living in the moment is an important aspect of Silghen culture, but also that speakers of the language cannot conceive of the idea that a time period other than the past and present could influence their actions.”

The researchers note that Silghen has no future tense, such that it is impossible for Silghen speakers to produce sentences containing a future tense verb. For example, the verb in the sentence [ŋivil mja] (“I am exiting the premises”) cannot be modified to refer to the future. At most, Silghen speakers could add an adverb referring to the day after the time of speaking, resulting in the sentence [worɑmət ŋivil mja], but the present-tense inflection remains obligatory even in this case. A similar situation applies in the case of the sentence [mə ut kɑt ənʌɡ mja], which means “I am walking towards a man in order to speak with him” and contains only present-tense verbs, but can be used by speakers in cases where they are not currently walking, but are thinking of eventually doing so. That the present tense is obligatory shows that Silghen speakers have difficulty thinking about the future and can only speak about it, if at all, by referring to it as if it were the present.

The researchers note that this study could have a significant impact on our knowledge of how the human brain works. According to lead researcher Piras Fowhr, “Our results suggest that the ability to think about the future is linguistically determined rather than an innate part of the human brain. This has important implications for, and opens up promising new avenues in, fields that study individuals’ ability to plan for the future, such as behavioural economics. Could individuals’ ability to plan ahead be determined by the language they speak? If not determined, could it be influenced to varying degrees, depending on the language? This is a promising and exciting new line of inquiry, and more research would certainly be a valuable contribution to our knowledge of human psychology.”

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LinguimericksBook ९१
SpecGram Vol CXCII, No 1 Contents