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"The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?"






"Indo-European languages tend to prefer nouns, even when talking about things for which verbs might seem more appropriate. The English noun inflation, for example, refers to complex processes that were not a “thing” until language made them so. Things like inflation can even become animate, as when we say “we need to combat inflation” or “inflation is killing us at the check-out counter.” Modern cognitive linguists like George Lakoff at Berkeley call inflation an “ontological metaphor.” (Theinflation example is Lakoff’s.) 

When I studied Chinese, though, I began to notice a preference for verbs. Modern Chinese does use ontological metaphors, such as fāzhăn (literally “emit and unfold”) to mean “development” or xὶnxīn (“believe mind”) for “confidence.” But these are modern words that derive from Western languages (mostly via Japanese) and carry a Western flavor with them. “I firmly believe that…” is a natural phrase in Chinese; you can also say “I have a lot of confidence that…” but the use of a noun in such a phrase is a borrowing from the West.


I wondered: in Western languages, especially in their modern versions, do we sometimes use nouns to conceive things when we don’t really need to? For example, when electrical impulses are speeding along neurons in the brain, might not a verb be best? Why do we create the noun “neural connectivity” and then refer to it as an actor: “neural connectivity makes it natural for complex metaphorical mappings to be built”? This sentence is from Lakoff, but similar examples are everywhere. A medical researcher at the University of California at San Francisco in 2003 discussed mad cow disease in terms of its “high infectivity.” Infectivity? Why not just say the disease spreads easily?

Next I wondered: does this question matter? Does unnecessary turning of verbs into nouns ever do any harm, or am I just fussing? 

Where it can cause trouble, I think, is at the point where people begin to assume that a noun somehow says something more than a verb or adjective does. “The neurons connect well” and “the neural connectivity is good” say the same thing, but I fear that people begin to suppose that “neural connectivity” somehow adds to “neurons connect” and becomes a “thing” in itself, not just a label for an action."

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