Whorfian socioeconomics is an emerging interdisciplinary field of study that holds that linguistic structures explain differences in beliefs, values, and opinions across communities. Its core empirical strategy is to document a correlation between the presence or absence of a linguistic feature in a survey respondent’s language, and her/his responses to survey questions. This essay demonstrates — using the universe of linguistic features from the World Atlas of Language Structures and a wide array of responses from the World Values Survey — that such an approach produces highly statistically significant correlations in a majority of analyses, irrespective of the theoretical plausibility linking linguistic features to respondent beliefs. These results raise the possibility that correlations between linguistic features and survey responses are actually spurious. The essay concludes by showing how two simple and well-understood statistical fixes can more accurately reflect uncertainty in these analyses, reducing the temptation for analysts to create implausible Whorfian theories to explain spurious linguistic correlations.
Here’s Tom illustrating his point:
This distinction between “VO” languages like German and “OV” languages like Japanese has implications for how language speakers conceptualize social difference and distance. By gram- matically 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 statististically 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.
The preceding paragraph is satire,1 but it rests on firm empirical evidence, and is a real- istic depiction of the emerging literature on “Whorfian socioeconomics.” Whorfian socioeco- nomics attributes causal effect to language structure in explaining beliefs, values, and opinions…