Implications of Language: Tone, Tense and Time
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.
1) He ate dinner, then left.
The equivalent Chinese sentence is given in Cantonese phoneticization:
2) kui sik joh faan siin jau
But because the aspectual marker marks completion of dinner relative to leaving, this sentence could be interpreted as:
3) He ate dinner, then left.
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.
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.