interplay between language and thought

Although there is no correlation between writing and speech in Chinese, how we speak does affect our way of thinking. Each language builds a fence around those who speak it from birth, imprisoning our thought within its vocabulary (and grammar) unless we find a way out. Freedom is achieved by becoming familiar with a second language. This new knowledge enables us to view our first language objectively from without, creating fresh insight while further enhancing the interplay between language and thought.

Because of the diversity of each nation’s history and culture, it is debatable whether there is any such thing as a universal code of logic. Concepts are expressed by words. If certain words are absent in a second language, the exact meaning of a particular concept expressed in the vocabulary of the first language may also be non-existent in the second, ‘foreign’ country and may not hold the same relevance there.

Watching the Tree

Chinese logic is not based on subject—predicate relationships but on correlative duality. Neither subject nor predicate is necessary in a Chinese sentence. Instead of saying, ‘Milk is white, but coal is not white’, we Chinese say, ‘White milk, black coal’. On many occasions, the subject is omitted altogether. In Chinese, we cannot say, ‘It snows’. Instead, we say, ‘Drop snow’.

By dispensing with the subject, Chinese thought takes a different path. Attention is concentrated not on the nature of the ‘thing in itself’ (Kant’s ‘das Ding an sich’) but on the total relational pattern of things in general.

Two words with opposite meanings are seldom placed together side by side in English. In contrast, we Chinese frequently use antonyms to represent a concept. Some common examples are:

Opposing words Meaning Concept represented
jìntuì 退 advance/retreat movement
shàngxià above/below; up/down all about, whole body
kāiguān open/close light switch
chéngbài success/failure outcome, result
xiǎo big/small size
chángduǎn long/short situation
duōshǎo much/little how much or what
mǎimài buy/sell business or trade
bái black/white morality
Adeline Yen Mah, Watching The Tree
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