“I particularly detested the past-perfect progressive tense, which I called the Annoying PPP: a continuous action completed at some point in the past. I felt giddy every time I heard the Annoying PPP; I just couldn’t understand how anyone was able to grasp something so complex. For example, my grammar book said: “Peter had been painting his house for weeks, but he finally gave up.” My immediate reaction, even before I got to the grammatical explanation, was: my God, how could someone paint his house for weeks and still give up? I just couldn’t see how time itself could regulate people’s actions as if they were little clocks! As for the grammar, the word order “had been” and the added flourishes like “ing” made my stomach churn. They were bizarre decorations that did nothing but obscure a simple, strong building. My instinct was to say something like: “Peter tries to paint his house, but sadness overwhelms him, causing him to lay down his brushes and give up his dream.””

— Xiaolu Guo

 

I used to always say I was raised with Chinese as my emotional language, and then grew into English as my intellectual language. It’s a shoddy binary, sure, but this quote above is sewing the two worlds together for me.

Think of the many crafty ways temporality is embedded into language, which in turn constructs our idea of how the world works. If the English language really is so temporally motivated, with its entire grammatical structure built upon concepts of past, present, and future, then is it any wonder why there is seemingly a large gulf or void of truly understanding one another, even when we are communicating? Because time in and of itself is meaningless, yes?

In the example above, the English grammatical structure allows for a (seemingly) perfect logic even when no character motivation (aka actual logic) is revealed. Peter had been painting, then he simply stopped. That was what happened. A factual occurrence. An event.

It is almost impolite to inquire beyond what is laid out by the sentence. This is something I feel often in my real life interactions – I have a morbid curiosity about other people and their inner motivations. Then I feel I have breached some etiquette. If we are point blank talking to each other, understanding each other perfectly, who am I to decide I am still in need of more information?

What does it take to translate that Peter-painting sentence into Chinese? By default it would have to carry a bit more more circumstantial information in order even to make sense. As seen in Xiaolu’s example. You inject a little bit of the surrounding when, why, how, and so on. Or else the sentence would fail to stand on its own, as evidently the English version could.

The little things I have to stop myself from asking when conversing in English, I suppose, while screaming on the inside But it doesn’t make sense! I don’t understand what is happening! I need more info!

In English, there are hints. Ominous. Foreboding. Peter had been painting…but he finally gave up. The “but’s” and the finality (also delineated by time) of “finally.” What is happening??

Yes I know it is uncareful to generalize an entire language in this anecdotal way. Though that doesn’t stop me from wondering how much of the emotional barrenness or ambiguity in my English writings is a conscious craft decision, or a casual byproduct of the language itself.

Like these two shots I took last night of that blue hour at dusk (ISO 3200, for anyone interested):

 

 

Language, communication, leaps of faith across informational gulfs, and so on.

And oh, yes, to summer dusks that stretch almost hour-long.

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