Grendel’s Grammar

Or… How Language Enables Thought and Behaviour

This post is by Florence Hazrat
(Florence is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of English at the University of St Andrews)

What if your native language makes you live longer? Or shorter for that matter? What if, because you are a French rather than Dutch-speaking Belgian, you are more likely to suffer from old-age poverty, a sexually transmitted disease, and obesity?
      If this sounds like a big leap of the imagination, watch the TED talk by Yale behavioural economist Keith Chen (here). Chen proposes what he calls the ‘linguistic savings hypothesis’, an astonishing correlation between grammar and future-oriented behaviour like saving, using a condom during sex, and doing sports. Speakers of ‘futureless’ languages, Chen argues (you can find more detail in ), show more concern for their future welfare precisely by talking about it in present terms and associating tomorrow with now.
      Broadly sketched, there are two groups of languages, those with weak future-time reference (WTR) like German, and those with strong future-time reference (STR) like English. In futureless German, one may say ‘it rains tomorrow’ (es regnet morgen), compared to the obligatory future tense in English, ‘it is going to rain’ or ‘it will rain’. It is true, Chen admits, that English accepts the present tense for scheduled events, but the way a language treats time overall is not dependent on such particular contexts. Through increased grammatical distinction, the future becomes another country to us, and we tend to care less what happens there.
      Chen analyses the verb usage in online weather forecasts of a number of languages and maps their WTR and STR results onto OECD savings rates between 1985 to 2010. The numbers are high, and surprisingly consistent: futureless language speakers are 39% more likely to save in any given year, 24% more likely to avoid smoking, 29% more likely to exercise regularly, and are 14% less likely to be obese. But do the Finnish save more and eat less, because their language happens to be Finnish, or because they are Finnish?
      The study tries to control cultural and other contextual factors like age, gender, education, tax systems or institutions by including multi-lingual countries like Switzerland, Nigeria and Singapore. Results support the findings: future-oriented behaviour of next-door neighbours, who share the same living conditions but not the same language, are different. Do the structures of one’s language then cause conduct? Or do they rather reflect culture? Are both, perhaps, too intricately intertwined to ask what was first, language being what it is because of culture, and vice versa?
      What Chen’s research suggests is a Whorfian economics, engaging with the eternal question whether our language determines our thought, the way we perceive and experience the world, and the way we represent it in the mind. Benjamin Whorf’s theories of language and cognition have sparked innumerable studies, as well as urban legends like the 50 different words for snow in Eskimo languages – which may actually turn out to be more, and so maybe there is a truth somewhere? It does seem that certain categories like colours, space, time, and emotions point towards linguistic relativism rather than to universal rules in all language communities. (Some of these issues are tackled in a earlier post in this blog, here).


Grendel, the monster from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, has always known this, or rather the poet has, writing his epic in the Old English technique called variation. A person or a thing is being named not just once, but they are described in several ways, all clustered together.

as se hwita helm hafelan werede,
se þe meregrundas mengan scolde,
secan sundgebland since geweorðad,
befongen freawrasnum, swa hine fyrndagum
worhte waepna smið, wundrum teode,
besette swinlicum, þaet hine syðþan no
brond ne beadomecas bitan ne meahton. ()

[‘To guard [Beowulf’s] head he had a glittering helmet / That was due to be muddied on the mere bottom / And blurred in the up swirl. It was of beaten gold, / Princely headgear hooped and hasped / By a weapon-smith who had worked wonders / In days gone by and adorned it with boar-shapes; / Since then it had resisted every sword.’ From Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Translation (London, 2000).]

A helmet is a helmet is a helmet, but it is more than that: variation defines and re-defines, offering at each repetition a slightly different take. Layer by layer qualities and uses of the helmet are peeled off, revealing a rich individualized history. It’s a literary kaleidscope, painting a similar but different picture at every turn, at every added element of the variation. These elements are not subordinated but syntactically equal, they are suspended in the grammatical air which holds them up to the readers’ eyes, ears, and minds. The helmet can be this, and it can be that, and both at the same time.
      Fred Robinson calls this grammatical and conceptual equality ‘‘, placing two entities next to each other on the same imagined plane. The whole poem, Robinson writes, does what it does through apposition, of concepts, syntax, and diction: the word ‘dryhten’, for example, can mean the pagan lord of the retainers as well as Lord in Christian terms, that is, God. The word expresses both concepts simultaneously, evokes both contexts, and it is up to the readers to infer towards which the poem leans, if it leans. They therefore cultivate a complex versatility of thought that can juggle two seemingly exclusive concepts, like paganism and Christianity, without necessarily settling on one. Or do the structures of language and poetry reflect, rather than create, habits of thought?
      Grendel’s grammar probably can’t help you save up for the future, but what it can do is provide test cases for debated and debatable theories, having known the human mind for far longer than they.

Keith Chen, ‘The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets’ in American Economic Review, 103 (2013), 690-731.
Quoted from Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, ed. R.D. Fulk, Robert Bjork, and John Niles (Toronto, 2008, fourth edition).
See Fred C. Robinson, Beowulf and the Appositive Style (Knoxville, 1985).

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