Languages with no future better for the future?

According to a recent article Yale researcher Keith Chen is “currently working on a paper in which he examines the effect of future tense in different cultures’ future-oriented behavior.” He distinguishes between the so-called strong future time reference (FTR) languages, like English, which according to his preliminary research are “more likely to make poor decisions in terms of planning for the future resulting in higher rates of obesity, debt, smoking, drinking, and so forth” and other, weak FTR languages, which would then have the opposite effect on the future.  Although the research paper has not been finished yet and there has been criticism, such as the difficulty to categorize languages as strong or weak FTR, I thought this a good opportunity to look at a language with no future tense since the sheer idea of it often puzzles people.

My mother tongue Finnish does not have an actual future tense. We use the present tense also for future and words like kohta (soon) or huomenna (tomorrow) or ensi vuonna (next year) to mark the future. The so-called tulla-futuuri (tulla=will be) is however becoming (!) more and more common. It’s not (yet) considered acceptable and many people are very much against it but it seems that it’s winning popularity and might find its way into the Finnish language norms, whether we like it or not. One of the reasons why this form has been frowned upon is because its origins are in the Swedish language’s kommer att construction. However, as Jääskeläinen points out in her article, also the newer tenses in Finnish, i.e. perfect and past perfect tenses have come from the West into the Finnish language. Some people argue that the tulla-futuuri is even necessary in some cases and would hinder the understanding of the sentence if it wasn’t used. The following examples are taken from translation company Translatum’s language help section (with my translations into English):

Virtanen tulee olemaan riemuissaan valinnastaan. (Virtanen will be happy if he’s chosen.)

Virtanen on riemuissaan valinnastaan. (Virtanen is happy because he’s chosen.)

In the above examples, it is indeed true that the addition or elimination of the tulla structure changes the meaning of the rest of the sentence, too. So sometimes it seems legitimate to use it. Of course you could argue that it’s not necessary even here as you could explain the phrase in another way, too, such as by adding a subordinate clause like “if he’s chosen” at the end, resulting in:

Virtanen on riemuissaan, jos hänet valitaan.*

To go back to the article about the future tense’s effect on the future, does it actually imply that nations like Finland, with no clear future tense, will have less obesity, debt, smokers, drinkers and so forth? Well, I think many people associate Finland with heavy drinking but it looks like we are by far not the only Europeans binge drinking. We are also not on the top of the list when it comes to obesity (we learned something in the 1970s) nor do we have the most public debt to GDP ratio. We do like to plan and I think are at times good at foreseeing the future so we don’t fall into a complete and utter crisis. Then again, it’s not that long ago that Finland was in deep recession (early 1990s). So could a language’s strong or weak future tense indeed have some effect on the country’s future? I think it’s certainly an intriguing research but we need to know more to make better conclusions. However, it’s always good to stop and think how languages are built, how different structures come about and just how much is borrowed or stolen from other languages. That’s how we get a bigger picture of the things and can understand the language as well as the culture and the nation better. And that’s really the ultimate goal we strive for, isn’t it?

(*I realise that the Finnish language examples might need more explanation to non-Finnish speakers – such as why I translated different clauses in the same way, both with ‘jos hänet valitaan’ - but this goes a bit beyond the point of this article. Apologies for a possible confusion!)

One thought on “Languages with no future better for the future?

  1. Dear Kirsi,
    I find this fascinating and VERY significant for progress in developing inter-cultural, global citizenship and a means to education that is truly sustainable. It confirms my recently completed PhD, which follows life and work in over 60 countries. In the past a comparative study of language, religion, and other subjects too, has now sadly been replaced by history and geography curriculum that are politically correct and focus on national rather than transnational and anthropological understanding. I do believe that learning about language differences can explain many of our limited notions, interpretations, and misunderstandings, eg languages which do not have articles, metaphor in different languages, languages which have masculine, feminine and neuter etc…

    This would as you suggest help us enormously to appreciate and possibly even shift perspective. The lack of a future tense in Finnish would also have the good effect of revealing the depth or detail of someone’s conviction or commitment, unlike English in which there are many vague and deceptive forms, amounting to Derrida’s ‘impurity of language’.

    Many thanks for your thinkpiece,

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