Grammar and culture

If you’re not a word nerd like I am, perhaps you won’t appreciate Phuc Tran’s examination of some of the differences between English grammar and Vietnamese grammar. But I found it fascinating.

Tran could not get into the finer points of grammar and culture in this 14-minute talk, so he makes some generalizations. But his main point is worth considering: language affects reality.

If you’ve got 14 minutes, let Tran explain:

If you don’t have 14 minutes, here’s my clumsy summary of Tran’s point:

The “subjunctive verbal mood” (quite prominent in English grammar) is about possibility—what could happen or should happen or might happen. The “indicative verbal mood” (sort of the default mode of Vietnamese grammar) is about fact—what did or didn’t happen. Neither is inherently good or bad, but each is a tool that needs to be used for the right purpose. Facts can be limiting. And possibilities can be overwhelming. Growing up in an English-speaking culture, Tran acquired the subjunctive language tools to imagine a different future for himself—and this was empowering, until it became overwhelming. Then he needed the clarity of his Vietnamese father’s indicative language to move forward.

I guess I had never realized that different languages have different grammar. I mean, I understood some of the differences, like when you say, “There’s no word for that in French” or when you have to wait for the end of the sentence in German to find out what the verb is. But I didn’t understand that the underlying modes of thought and structure were different too.