Irreconcilable Logics (2)

Like the rules for music, those for language are, in effect, a description of what people actually do. But unlike music, language rules are inconsistent and sometimes contradictory.

And despite general consistency among western languages, each language has its unique rules. In French, Italian, and Spanish, for example, all nouns, including those referring to objects, have a masculine or feminine gender. Latin and German add a neuter gender. English mostly ignores gender except for living beings.

In some languages, there is a tense distinction between past actions that were completed and those that continued. Some require adjectives to agree with the gender of the noun they modify; others, like English, mostly do not. And the rules for writing in the language can be strict. In German, all nouns are capitalized.

The logic of Asian languages is so different from that of western languages that most westerners have great difficulty learning those languages. Here I can speak of only two languages, Vietnamese and Chinese, because I do not know others like Japanese and Korean.

To me the dominating characteristic of spoken Vietnamese and Chinese is the monosyllabic structure and the use of tones. To express complex meaning, both languages use compounds, two-syllable combinations. And any syllable can have quite different meaning depending on the tone. Chinese (Beijing dialect, the one I know) uses four tones (other dialects use more); Vietnamese has six tones.

To illustrate: in Vietnamese, the syllable ma can mean ghost (level tone, also called no tone), cheek (rising tone), but (falling tone), tomb (low rising tone), appearance (creaky tone), or to plate (low glottal stop). And each of those inflected syllables have several additional meanings beyond those I’ve given. Clarity results from context or use of a compound, that is combining two syllables to form a word.

Writing Vietnamese is relatively easy for westerners. Eighteenth century Portuguese missionaries devised a writing system based on the western alphabet. The sounds intended for each letter often depart from standard English pronunciation (tr, for example, is pronounced like ch in English).

More tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Irreconcilable Logics (2)”

  1. Interesting blog today, Tom. I was at a meeting at the Organization of American States earlier this week and in talking to one of my long-time colleagues and friends, we were speaking about a mutual Vietnamese colleague. Her name is Miss Tram which I know to be pronounced as Miss Chum.However, all of the professors and advisors at her university did not know this Vietnamese pronunciation and we’re calling her Tram. I explained the way the Vietnamese pronounce TR and he was stunned and said that he would tell all of his colleagues to call her by her correct name.


  2. Great story, Ken. Thank you. I’m amazed at the arrogance of we Americans. We make no effort to pronounce other people’s languages correctly and are offended when they mispronounce English. We suffer from a superiority complex.


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