Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Manchester, writes in his new book, Through the Language Glass, about one of the language questions that people love to chew over: does language shape how we think, or do we all think the same way? I guess I claim the middle ground: that we all essentially think the same way, but that language shades some spots, and offers subtlety and innuendo.
Here's an example of what I consider real shadiness, where my English "thinking" and my Chinese language learning collided. It's about two small but powerful Chinese words: xia and shang.
Xia 下 means "next" as in future time (next time) , but it also means "beneath, under", as in location or place (under the table).
Shang 上 means "last" as in last time (last week), but it also means "above, on top", as in location or place (on the table).
All my Chinese language teachers introduced the complete sets of meaning of xia and shang in the same lessons. For them, they were just teaching the words -- xia and shang -- and it seemed very straightforward. But for us students, this was amazingly confounding and awkward. It took a few back flips to sort them out, keep them straight, and land on the right choice. The problem?
For me at least, the problem was all about the collapsing the notions of time and place into a single word xia or shang, and then remembering the arbitrary assignment of the time reference (future or past) and place reference (above or below). To me, there was nothing at all intuitive that future time and location below should be together as one word (and character!). Or why past time and location above should be together. It could as easily be the opposite pairings.
I finally drew myself a little grid, where the vertical axis represented place and the horizontal axis represented time. Then I put xia in the southeast quadrant and shang in the northwest quadrant. This helped me visualize and remember until I finally just "got a feel" for the words, after a long, long time.
I ask a lot of Chinese people about the xia and shang conundrum, but get blank looks in return. This is obviously just a conundrum for me (and most other Chinese language learners whom I have casually polled). It just doesn't register as an issue with the Chinese.
This stumper of xia and shang doesn't answer the philosophical questions about language and thought, but it is at least an example of where concepts and vocabulary collide and make trouble for the brain, because of differences in language specifics.