Grammatology Lecture Notes
Let us now consider the nature of Chinese verbs, and what they tell us about the Chinese historical world view. In order to fully understand the nature of the Chinese verb, it is first necessary to consider the nature of the verb in English.
Verbs in English –and all European languages- convey two meanings in one word: an action (go, walk, read) and the time when the action happens: (went, am walking, have read). The time of the action is signified by the verb tense. In the European mind, therefore, action is seen as inseparable from time. Our conceptual existence is time-bound, and our languages reflect this in the immense complexity of our tense systems. Our very actions and the states we inhabit are always contextualised as part of a time span. Our world is a linear progression from the past through the present into the future, and on. Time therefore takes on the metaphorical dimension of space, in which these two abstract concepts are understood as metaphors of each other: it’s high time, in next to no time, time flies, bring an event forward, put it back. The prepositions in at on are used for both time and space: in March/in the room, at 8.00/at the window; on Monday/on the table.
We exist suspended in a crux of time and space.
Chinese verbs, on the other hand, only give information about the action. Chinese has no tenses. Information about the time of the action is either signified elsewhere in the sentence, by means of a time chunk: yesterday, tomorrow, before, after and so on; or is left ambiguous and inferred from the context. Inconceivably, actions do not take place in time but in a timeless world. There is no orderly linear progression of time from the past to the future. Instead there is a timeless, static state, in which space and time are not metaphors of each other. The language does not allow the possibility of a conjunction of action and time, but specifically prevents it.
Along with the absence of tense, is the absence of any subjunctive mood. Chinese draws no grammatical or conceptual distinction between if I win the lottery, and if I won the lottery. The language (the mind) cannot hypothesise; it cannot imagine an alternative state of affairs, one that could be changed, one that could be bettered by actions taking place in time.
It is tempting to see in this an explanation of the tremendous inertia of Chinese culture, where things have remained basically unchanged for 5000 years. The Chinese mind exists in a timeless state of inertia, where actions are not seen as time-bound, time is not linear or progressive, time and space are not metaphors of each other, and there is no possibility of improvement.
On a more mundane level, the Chinese are notoriously bad at timekeeping, at time management, they have extremely limited spatial awareness, and most of the time have no idea where they are.