Implications of Language: Tone, Tense and Time
by Nick Yee

        The Chinese language has many interesting features. Chinese is a tonal language, and uses different contoured pitches to differentiate between words that have the same phonemes. Different Chinese dialects employ different number of tones. Usually, the more modern the dialect, the fewer the tones it will have, as languages tend to simplify as they evolve. Thus, a modern dialect like Mandarin has 4 tones, while Cantonese (which dates back to the Tang Dynasty AD 618-907) retains 9 tones. Words made of the same phoneme, but different tone, usually are semantically unrelated. But each phoneme/tonal is usually a homophone for several words. For example, the phoneme "si" in Cantonese could mean the following, depending on tone: 1) poetry/corpse 2) cause/waste/history 3) taste/try 4) time 5) market/city 6) soldier/to be 7) know/color 8) tongue 9) eat/eclipse. Tones in Chinese are set at relative pitches to each other, thus one implication of tones is that a native Chinese speaker cannot be tone-deaf, or else they would not be able to speak Chinese properly.

        Grammatically, Chinese is a very simple language. Verbs do not conjugate, and they do not need to agree with gender or plurality of the subject. Languages that have rich inflections have loose word order, while languages with few inflections have strict word order. Thus, word ordering is very strict in Chinese.

        Another interesting side note is that there is no word for either "yes" or "no" in Chinese. To answer in the affirmative, a Chinese speaker must repeat the verb used in the question. To disagree, the verb must be negated. But there is no word for an all encompassing affirmation or negation, such as the "yes" or "no" present in all romance languages.

        But by far the most fascinating aspect of Chinese is that it doesn't have a tense system. An event that occurred in the past is not denoted by the past tense, like it would be in all romance languages. Before we go into how Chinese deals with time, let's briefly consider the function of the tense system in romance languages.

        Tense systems conceptualize time as a linear flow, and demarcate this flow into sections through the use of tense. Tense is centered around the present. On a time line, the present moment is the only point that is allowed to move. The past and the future are based around it.

        Chinese deals with timing of events with an aspectual system. The timing of an event is marked relative to other events in a sentence or conversation. For example, the following English sentence can only be interpreted as having happened in the past:

1) He ate dinner, then left.

The equivalent Chinese sentence is given in Cantonese phoneticization:

2) kui sik joh faan siin jau
he eat ASP dinner then leave

But because the aspectual marker marks completion of dinner relative to leaving, this sentence could be interpreted as:

3) He ate dinner, then left.
4) He always eats dinner before leaving.
5) He will eat dinner, then leave.

        In a normal conversation, the correct interpretation would be obvious. In special cases where it would not be, the word for yesterday, now or tomorrow would have to be added. But notice that one would never need to add any of these 3 words in an English sentence to indicate whether an event happened in the past, present or future. This is because it is impossible to construct a sentence in English without tense (barring special cases like expletives).

        But because relative ordering is built into the aspectual system, Chinese doesn't need to rely on a set of nouns for relative ordering. For example, the following English sentence is grammatical but ambiguous because relative ordering is unclear:

6) He eats whistles

A word for relative ordering is needed to clarify, so for example:

7) He eats after he whistles.
8) He eats while he whistles.
9) He eats before he whistles.

In Chinese, the relative ordering would already be known and no extra word would need to be added to clarify.

        One question is whether linguistic conceptualization of time as linear versus relative makes any real psychological or cultural impact. This is made doubtful by the fact that there are words that clearly indicate linearity of time in Chinese, such as the words for: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. On the other hand, this might be one reason why Western science has become baffled by quantum physics, while Taoist scriptures resonate with it. It might also be an explanation for the conceptual difference between the one-pass heaven/hell concept versus the cyclical reincarnation concept.