Daily life, language, and grammar in China

The Chinese language transports a Westerner into a radically different world. Characters take the place of the alphabet, and grammar does not get bogged down, for example, with complex tenses or modes. I don’t know if language determines thought (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and behavior. Nevertheless, it has an influence. 

German and French

Before leaving for Chinese, we can stop in front of a smaller gap: French and German. German often puts its verb at the end of the sentence (in the compound tenses) or the end of the subordinate so that we have to wait for the verb to understand the message. After the verb, there is nothing more to add. Is this why in Germany, we don’t get cut off that often? On the other hand, in French, you first put down the essential and then comes the accessory. French goes towards the details, whereas German goes the other way round. Mme de Staël, on a visit to Germany, regretted this French twittering when everyone was speaking at the same time. She had understood the differences: “By the very nature of her grammatical construction, the meaning is usually not understood until the end of the sentence. Thus the pleasure of interrupting, which makes the discussion so lively in France, and forces one to say so quickly what it is important to make heard, this pleasure cannot exist in Germany, because the beginnings of sentences mean nothing without the end, one must give everyone all the space he or she needs to take; this is better for the substance of things, it is also more civil, but less pungent. (From Germany ,1813) .
The German philosopher Heinz Wismann explains in “Think through Languages,” the diverse influence of German and French on thinking and behavior. Let’s not go any further; let’s go back to China.

Change and flexibility

When you start your life in China in the world of work, the gap is even more significant; several phenomena can strike: change, flexibility, and lack of clarity in a response.
A few years ago in Wuhan, I attended a training session where the speaker made about fifty managers think about the changes in management decisions: “You have a big problem with a customer, you go to your boss, propose several solutions, he chooses the first one. You’re happy it’s the one the customer will accept. As soon as you leave the office, you call the customer and tell him the good news. You hang up, get in your car, and your manager calls you to tell you that it is better not to make this proposal after some thought. Ouch! You’ve already announced the news. How do you make sure that such a misadventure doesn’t happen again in the future? “The answers were numerous, and this one prevailed: “Learn how to deal with the boss. Many company bosses are like that; nothing is fixed. A decision is not a decree; it is a statement of fact that remains open! ».

Grammar or habits?

These observations reminded me of conversations with my early Chinese teachers about grammar. Chinese grammar is simple, even one went as far as blasphemy: “There is no Chinese grammar, there are just habits! ».
We don’t bother with tense, present perfect, future, past simple, indicative, subjunctive, conditional moods. In English, it will be “Tomorrow I’ll go to the pool,” whereas in Chinese, as conjugation and tenses do not exist, it will be, “明天我去游泳池.” Context gives meaning; one can always add a word to express the future, but it is not completely indispensable. With tomorrow, why to bother with a future tense, tomorrow is the future! There is no need to put an article to be given according to the genre of the name like in French (à la piscine, au cinéma, à l’aéroport), the genre does not exist. 

Need some grammar?

By the way, the need for grammar did not exist for a long time. Only from the XIXth century, the Chinese in contact with foreign linguists wrote a Chinese grammar in 1889. Joël Belassen, in an email, told me: “The first grammars were written long before but by the Jesuits. The first one dates from 1652, written by Mr. Martini. The first rather reasoned and “scientific” grammar is that of a French Jesuit a little later… on the Chinese side, before, just the notions of “empty words” and “full words.” 

Panini had composed the first Sanskrit grammar in the 5th century BC. J.-C.; it must be said that Sanskrit has a very complex grammar (I suffered from Panini)!

Chinese grammar

Change, flexibility, and Chinese language

The Chinese rules do not confine the speaker to a strict framework where he must make agreements and respond to more or less sophisticated rules of concordance of times or agreements of the past participle. The flexibility of the Chinese language leaves room for maneuver.  It gives certain freedom and does not hinder movement within the sentence. 
With these words, my first teacher linked to change, flexibility, and the Chinese language.

Yes or no?

One can also link the lack of clarity and even implicitness in everyday life (see article here) with language that does not have a real yes or no. Of course, one can replace the yes and no with an answer that will mean yes or no, but is that really useful? My first Chinese partner explained to me after an unclear meeting with a client: “You know Yes and No don’t exist in Chinese, it’s useless because when a Chinese person says yes, it might be yes, it might be no, or nothing at all, he doesn’t know exactly what he wants. »

It is difficult to say to what extent the Chinese language influences thinking, psychology, and behavior. My practice in the country often gives me the impression that I read grammar in everyday life. Obviously, I have only touched on one aspect of the subject; it deserves multiple developments, the characters, and the imaginary, the unconscious, the world of signs, the yin yang. But there are other stories… to be told soon.

Related articles:
Subtlety in China

What does the boss mean?

2nd July 2020

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