The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (4)

The profound differences in human thinking between western languages on the one hand and Vietnamese and Chinese on the other taught me to expand my own ability to think. More important, they enhanced my ability to write. As shades of meaning and nuance became clearer, I learned how to express them in English.

I wrote earlier in this blog about one of my favorite illustrations of how I learned: “One example of Asian language reasoning came to me when I was studying classical Chinese. In the text I was trying to translate were three characters, those for ‘he,’ ‘mountain,’ and ‘treasure.’ I couldn’t figure out what was meant. My teacher reminded me that in Chinese a word can function as any part of speech, and I was approaching that passage as if the second two characters were both nouns. The second of the three, ‘mountain,’ here was used as an action word. What the text meant was “He mountained the treasure,” that is, he piled it up so high it made a mountain.”

The underlying logic of western languages tends toward the mathematical. Various aspects of the past and future are clearly delineated. The distinction between what is true and not true is sharp.

In Asian languages I have studied, stress is less on facticity and more on relationships which define people and things. The difference between past and future is deemphasized and often not expressed. The discrepancy between what is and what is not is less clear. Much of the emphasis, particularly in the classical forms, is on beauty and the poetry inherent in expression.

More tomorrow

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