Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In a land of implication

Most English speakers have heard that Chinese does not have any "tense", meaning they do not "conjugate" their verbs like latin languages and English do. They do however, manage to convey a sense of past, present, future, etc through other grammatical structures. So it isn't as bad as it sounds.

But ultimately I find that Chinese seems to put the burden of understanding on the listener whereas English puts the burden of clarity on the speaker. English grammar forces the speaker to include things like "if", "when", "compared to", "at", "has" in the sentence, whereas Chinese allows (in fact encourages) the ommission of these seemingly crucial words.

The Implied IF

This was the first implied construct I came across in Chinese. A friend told me (in Chinese) "have time, come Shanghai visit you". I got excited and thought he meant "I have time so I will come visit you". But what he meant was "IF I have time, I will come to Shanghai to visit you". Clearly this was meant to be gleaned from the context. I'm starting to realize that these implied IFs are like black holes, you cannot see them directly, but their influence can be detected in other parts of the sentence. But it takes a trained speaker to pick up on such subtle clues. It is not as if Chinese does not have the word for "if", it is 如果 (ruguo). And I see it used. Someday perhaps I will fully understand when it is used directly and when it is implied. For now, I've become suspicious of all sentences, seeking the mysical signs of an implied "IF". Also, I confirm by asking directly whether the second half of the sentence is true before jumping to conclusions.

The way of the NO

There is no single word for NO in Chinese (nor for YES). It depends on the context how a negative is conveyed. But there are two major prefixes that are used to negate verbs: 不 (bu) and 没 (mei). Generally speaking 不 is used for present/future negatives (不要 means "I do not want" 不会去 means "I will not go"). All pretty clear so far. But then you start using 没 and you enter the implied zone, which coincides with a sort of past tense. It turns out that (most of the time) 没 is actually 没有 (don't have) with an implied 有。Which is odd, since that is a very common character that is used directly all the time (我有一个问题 means "I have a problem". Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't. I shall call 有 (yo) the Cheshire Cat of Chinese, and 没 is his smile; it lingers while you cannot see the rest of him.

Comparatively strange

I have learned to build comparison sentences like "A is better than B" using 比 (bi). To use it looks something like this: "A 比 B good". In English we could think of this as "A vs. B". Then I came across this sentence 晨跑当然没有夜跑好啊。Broken down this is: "Morning run, of course, not have, night run, good". This is like: "A is not as good as B", which is the opposite structure of 比. So I thought I had discovered a new structure to learn. But, yes, you guessed it, there is an IMPLIED 比. Sadly, my teacher's English was not sufficient to explain this to me completely. I was told that it is implied and it cannot be added back, so I just have to adopt the Chinese mind on this one. I think of it a bit like Neo's trouble understanding that "there is no spoon" is the key to bending the spoon.  

When I'm 64

The Beatle's famous song in Chinese could have been "age 64", no need for the "when". I'm guessing on this one, but I think the lyrics would go something like this:

我64岁,你还是会爱我吗?(Me 64, you still will love me?)

This is really a stealthy form of the implied IF: "IF I was 64, would you still love me?". Of course, Chinese has a word for when, which is 的时候 (or 什么时候 when asking a question rather than making a statement). So they can always put it in the sentence when extra clarity of emphasis is required. 

Much Ado about Context

Chinese is referred to as a "contextual language", even though ultimately, all language is contextual. We know that especially from seeing how the understanding of our own language fades over time. It gets harder and harder to read Shakespeare, for example. However Chinese does make extra use of context. In America we spend time in English class focused on the differences between "there", "their" and "they're" because they sound the same but mean different things (homonyms). Studying Chinese is like that, except where EVERY word is a homonym and key grammatical elements like IF are implied. 

The Chinese Mind (中国人的思维)

Much ink has been spilled considering Eastern vs. Western thought. But I'll add my 2 cents to the dialogue anyway.

Perhaps the Chinese language (Mandarin being the only one I can speak about) forces native speakers to share more of the same way of thinking in order to understand each other because of the limited amount of explicit context. So people avoid straying into new mental territory too quickly. If an individual strays too far from the shared context they will not be understood at all.  The language reenforces the cultural need to be like minded not because of idealogy but simply because of a pragmatic desire to be understood.

Of course, things are changing in China faster than anyone could have imagined. So perhaps the current generation is finding ways to break that barrier.

Today I had a Chinese Mind moment: where I understood the Chinese perspective on a concept. I was in a class with another Western woman who was asking, "What does this 泳 character mean?" and she was told "It doesn't mean anything, it is part of the word 泳远 that means "forever"". I remember feeling the way she did: confused that this individual character 泳 could not have meaning.  But it is all about the context in which it resides, to the Chinese it literally "has no meaning" without its context (in this case 远). But as analytical reductionist thinkers we want to break it down to the individual parts and gain understanding from the meaning of those parts. But Chinese resists this approach. You will go mad trying to think that 泳 has a meaning by itself. You can notice that 泳 seems to be associated with words that relate to a concept similar to "always", but that should only be helpful to remember the actual words, not to draw any conclusions about the "meaning" of 泳. Richard Nisbett expands on this idea of contextual thinking in his book "The Geography of Thought; How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why?". A worthwhile read on the topic.

I will leave you with this painting from an art gallery that I stealthily took from the street. Rows of synchronized TaiChi (太极拳)practicioners in front of a Chinese temple. There is one lone individual out front: is he leading them? has he broken from the pack? Ponder this with whatever type of mind you have handy.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating commentary. Pity the long essay I wrote for the first time I made this post was lost :-(
    The conclusion was that Germany are the world thought leaders. Now how did I get there.......