Lingua Franca

“Thinking you could or should have done something is all possible because of the subjunctive mood” says the interviewer in this NPR TED talk segment about Phuc Tran, who comments on growing up speaking English in a Vietnamese household in Portland, Maine. Tran’s main argument is that the subjunctive, which is found in many languages and is used to connote uncertainty, regret, and hypothetical or analogous simulations (e.g. “He plays the guitar as if he were a professional,” in English, or “Toca la guitara como si fuera un profesional,” in Spanish), is the mechanism by which people comprehend these abstract ideas in the real world. No subjunctive tense, no future. No regret. No hindsight at all, actually: “The subjunctive is like a time-space dream machine,” according to Tran.

“Because my dad is a non-native speaker of English, he didn’t grasp all the nuances of the subjunctive,” Tran explains, adding, “The subjunctive allows us to look into the future, and to see multiple highly nuances possibilities.” His dad, in this scenario, simply can’t fathom the idea that “if it hadn’t rained, we would’ve gone to the beach,” responding, “That’s stupid. Why would you want to talk about something that didn’t happen?”

But does grammar really limit a person from understanding a concept? I can’t believe this idea even needs to be debated. Clearly it’s not the case that people have different abilities to ponder basic physics just because of linguistic divergence. Tran’s dad can just as easily comprehend the idea, he just doesn’t want to dwell on the many roads not taken. Just because he doesn’t want to talk about them doesn’t mean he isn’t aware they exist. Does Tran really mean to suggest that a whole group of people don’t think about—nay, can’t even imagine—future or past events?

“You don’t think your family ever thought about what could have been?” the interviewer asks. “I really don’t,” responds Tran. Need I go on?

Not only is it completely patronizing (and, possibly racist?) to suggest that certain cultures, by manifestation of their linguistic habits, aren’t capable of reason, but it’s demonstrably fatuous, just by thinking about it for two seconds. If your parents can’t think of future possibilities, how did they raise a family? How did they escape Saigon and start anew in Pennsylvania? (Listen to the story if this is confusing.)

This argument sounds all-too familiar; add it to the list of “X culture has 100 words for Y” myths that are used to put people into boxes and marginalize their cultures, i.e. to drive wedges into unnecessary cracks. Do Eskimos really have 100 words for snow? Possibly, but so do English-speaking people, via compound structures like “wet snow,” “packed snow,” “fluffy snow,” etc.—compounds which are squished into the same word in German, rendering the “Eskimos really understand X better than English-speaking people” (or vice versa) trope useless at best—and dangerous at worst.

And speaking of English, it has retained many quirks, most notably the unnecessary “do,” as in “Did you go to the store? — Yes, we did go to the store,”—which in other languages is simply implied by inflection, as in Romance languages where the inquisitive is simply the present tense structure with question marks on either end. In Spanish, translated, the question would read: “You go to the store?—Yes, we went to the store.” Different grammar, same idea.

Since Spanish speakers (and anyone else but English speakers, since the “did” insertion is a holdover from Cornish, Welsh, and other Celtic languages being melded by Norse and Saxon settlers butchering each other’s languages as the two cultures mingled) don’t use the unnecessary “did,” do we ask whether they’re incapable of comprehending the past? Of course we don’t. People of different languages simply have different ways of expressing the same natural phenomena.

Of course the segment had to also include a bit about how humans are the only animals capable of language, and about how therefore we are the only beings capable of abstract thought and of sharing learned experiences with fellow creatures (which is essentially the catalyst of technology).

Let’s just forget that other primates can not only understand English but can communicate in sign language, or that they can make tools (like the fishing rods made by orangutans) and teach others how to replicate them, or that they mourn when loved ones die, suggesting an understanding of concepts like finality and alternate realities (now someone is with us, alive, part of our family, etc. and now they’re not, sadly). And that’s just primates. Let’s just forget that whales communicate—with each other and with other species, like dolphins. Let’s forget that they can even mimic human speech in English.

Let’s forget all of that, because humans aren’t part of connected ecosystems, we’re exceptional: we’re the exception to the rule, and therefore we’re the rulers. It would almost be funny if it weren’t for the actual devastation this kind of thinking wreaks on living beings with families and communities and lives and emotions. Oops, there I go, using the subjunctive again—so if you’re Vietnamese you can’t possibly understand this concept.

Related: if whales one day demonstrate that they understand sarcasm, then will it be enough to convince people to stop filling their stomaches with plastic and boiling their habitats and poisoning all their food?


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