From Leonid Perlovsky, principal research physicist and technical advisor Air Force research laboratory visiting scholar, Harvard University Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging
Separation of oral and writing forms in Chinese language(s), superiority and disadvantages of this, future of Chinese language – are fascinating subjects. I do not know Chinese and can only ask questions based on those languages I know, mostly English and Russian.
From theoretical considerations, we know that sounds of a language affects us emotionally. This is a direct affect perceived by ancient emotional brain areas (unlike other emotions that might perceive after understanding conceptual contents of various situations). Thus we might conclude that in Chinese language connections between emotional and conceptual contents is less strong than in some other languages (like Russian).
The cognitive functions of these emotions specific to language sounds are not well understood. In animals emotional and conceptual content of vocalization is fused, not separated. Animals cannot separately think and vocalize. Emergence of human language and ability for deliberate thinking required separation of emotions and concepts. In this regard separation of writing and sound forms helps evolution of conceptual thinking in Chinese language.
From this point on, there are more questions than answers:
1) An important function of a language is to use sounds (of words) for pointing to objects and events in the world. Emotionality of language sounds unfies conceptual contents of words with objects in the world. But emotionality of languages could be an ambivalent quality. “Too low” emotionality may lead to disconnect between language and the world. “Too high” emotionality may lead to “strong” connections and to a loss of adaptivity of language, loss of ability to perceive new contents. What is the “optimal” emotionality of a language? What is the optimal “strength” of connection between language and the world?
2) This could be studied by psycholinguistics and cultural anthropology. By looking at the world languages we can see different evolutionary paths of cultures with “too emotional” and “unemotional” languages. We should keep in mind that connections between the mind and the world are dynamic evolving processes.
3) This direction of research could also be studied by simulating language and cultural evolution.
4) What is a cognitive function of “tonality” of Chinese language? Whereas in English and Russian pitch variations are only used for expressing emotions, in Chinese it is used for both, emotional and conceptual contents. Currently there is no scientific answer to the question of cognition and tonality
5) Of course, connections between language sounds and the world are not the only factors directing cultural evolution. What are the other factors? How do they interact with language?
I am looking forward to hearing answers from people who know Chinese and its cultural history.
From Lin Hong
This is a good lesson for me to know more about psycho-linguistics. I knew emotion is an indispensable part of intelligence. Now I know more elaborations on this. I have long perceived that language affects culture. Leonid’s words attests that this is true. This also explains why contemplation on a culture often end in criticizing the language. I do believe studies on emotional and conceptual functions in languages are very important. Could they even tough the roots of religions? I would like to find out whether models can be built to measure the emotional and conceptual components in a language.
The tones in Chinese play a central role in Chinese classic poetry. I don’t know anything other than the rhythmic functions they play in the tonal patterns of poems.
As a layman to linguistics, I would like to see more studies on the questions issued here.
From Leonid Perlovsky
Thank you for telling me about the role of tones in Chinese classic poetry. There are beautiful translations of Chinese classic poetry to Russian made by the best Russian poets. But it is impossible for me to say how well the rhythmic functions of tones are translated into Russian.
From Lin Hong
I am not sure how poems can be translated well, especially poems that rely on tonal patterns like Chinese poems. Once I tried to translate some Chinese poems. I found some good Chinese poems no long sound good (by meaning) in English. I had a colleague who was a good poet. He told me there are two types of poems: poems that convey a thought and poems that express a mood. He said English doesn’t convey feelings (which means English poems more convey thoughts) but French conveys feelings. According to him, in terms of poetry writing, languages may not be exchangeable. At this point, a thought is emerging in my mind: Are languages barriers to human’s cognitive functions?