Monday, September 6, 2010

Where Language and Thinking Collide

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     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.


  1. Hahaa! Yes, I had this problem too.

  2. The way I look at the xia & shang to indicate time is like this:

    Sometimes in Chinese, the past of time is compared to the flow of water, as in 时光如水.

    Water always flow downwards, so the time of xia means future, shang means past.

  3. Fillmore talks about the English metaphors for time putting the future ahead of the observer, and the past behind them:
    Your productive years are behind/ahead of you.
    The coming year/the passing months/days gone by
    etc. There are hundreds of such expressions.

    The conundrum for English speakers (which we never seem to notice until it's pointed out to us) is that, while this feels quite natural, we can't in fact perceive the future "ahead of us", while we have intimate knowledge of the past "behind us". Maybe we're going through time facing backwards? It would explain a lot.

    The Chinese metaphor of water falling past the perceiver, from the past above to the future below, seems no stranger than the English one; and the characters 上 and 下 form a pretty good mnemonic.

    Could it be (I know no Chinese languages) that 上 has a high tone and 下 a falling one?

  4. Both 上 and 下 have a falling tone I think.

  5. My favourite Cantonese teacher explained this concept by asking us to think of a calendar hanging on the wall.
    The unused future pages are on the bottom under the current month, the pages from the previous months are on the top (behind the art for the current month, for example).

  6. Yes, both xia and shang have falling tones, unfortunately. LissRR's teacher's calendar idea is a great one. I love that. I wish my teachers had suggested that. My teachers always expressed surprise that we western students had a problem learning the two different concepts for xia and shang at the same time. Even teaching them on different days would have helped!

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