Referring to the people of South Asia, Salman Rushdie writes in his novel Midnight’s Children (which is among my favorite reads):
“…no people whose word for “yesterday” is the same as their word for “tomorrow” can be said to have a firm grip on the time.”
It is an interesting observation that the word kal in Punjabi or Hindi can refer to day prior or to the day after the present day. While Salman Rushdie might have been lamenting about the South Asian tendency towards tardiness, recent research about such language effects is bringing forward provocative findings. As Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script is the common language of the Sikhs and the Sikh scriptures, these findings are of particular interest.
It is this lack of “firm grip on the time” that behavioral economist Keith Chen uses to create the category of “future-less languages.” In his research that he discusses compellingly in the TEDx Talk above, Chen has found a correlation between this type of language and the tendency to save money or even engage in more healthy behaviors.
Another recent article by Ozgun Atasoy in the journal Scientific American (via 3quarksdaily) also presents Chen’s analysis and theory that languages expressing concepts of the future in similar way to the present foster a resistance to immediate impulses since the distinction between the points in time are not emphasized.
Chen’s recent research suggests that people who speak languages that weakly distinguish the present and the future are better prepared for the future.
Extending this theory beyond Chen’s research, one wonders how Punjabi and related future-less languages of the central Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, might affect the reader, listener, and speaker, compared to English. In other words, does translating from Punjabi to English potentially reduce the impact of the Sikh scriptures on the consumer of those compositions?
It is often said that to fully understand and appreciate the Sikh scriptures, one must read in Punjabi rather than English translations. Indeed, in terms of poetic impact, it is difficult to replicate in English what was written in the original version. For example, English translations of JapJi Sahib composed by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, or even of Chaupai Sahib (which is not included in the Guru Granth Sahib) composed by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, do not have the same emotive quality that they do in their original language.
Beyond the influences of sound, if future-less languages by way of their construction are associated with differences in behavior (and, in the case of Chen’s research, advantageous behavior), perhaps there is more to being able to read and understand the Sikh scriptures in its original form than simply poetic impact. Increasing the conceptual immediacy of the future may make the consumer of the compositions more receptive to their lessons. It also suggests that this impact may be obscured by language construction that emphasizes differences between the present and the future, such as that in English.
For Sikhs who were born and brought up in the west or who are more recent converts and whose knowledge of Gurmukhi and Punjabi are woefully inadequate (as is mine), Chen’s research is illuminating. We may be losing more than we realize when we depend upon English translations of the Guru Granth Sahib that offer a very different character and influence compared to the original.
As the article in the Scientific American article concludes: “Language can move the future back and forth in our mental space and this might have dramatic influences on our judgments and decisions.”