This weekend my wife and I had the privilege of attending the International Neuroscience Conference where we had several occasions to listen to and talk with some wonderfully insightful people about how the human brain works. I was particularly struck by one conversation in which we were talking about how our language shapes our realities. The words we use don’t just refer to what is happening in a “real world” outside of ourselves, rather the words we use “create” our understanding of what is real.
During that conversation this weekend I was reminded of a TED talk I heard a while back about living in a world of might have been. A very accomplished college professor, born in Vietnam and fluent in both English and Vietnamese, was speaking about some of the major differences between the two languages and how our use of language fashions the way in which we view the world.
He made the point that, unlike English, Vietnamese and other Asian languages do not have a “subjunctive” verb structure. On the surface this sounds like a pretty dry topic, and to be honest when I first listened to this talk I wasn’t even sure what a “subjunctive verb” was. I soon learned that a “subjunctive” is a verb used to express something that might have been but never actually happened. More importantly I learned what a significant difference the use of this one little verb makes in how people view their everyday lives.
In his TED talk the professor spoke of how he once tried to explain what a “subjunctive” means when he went back home to Vietnam to visit his dad who had never been exposed to subjunctive verbs. He told him: "Dad, in English we would say, ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’ – that’s a subjunctive." To which the father replied: "That’s kind of dumb isn’t it? Why do you want to talk about something that never happened?"
The father’s response actually makes a lot of sense to me.
As I think about it, as an English speaker living in a Western culture I realize that we use an awful lot of subjunctive speech in our everyday language. We often talk about things that happened in the past but more than that we talk about what might have happened or not happened “if” we had done things differently.
When we live in the fantasy world of "longing for what might have been" we will always dwell in a place of regret, disappointment, or guilt over lost opportunities: “If I went to college, I might have been making lots more money today. If I had married my first love, my life might have been much happier. If I had remembered to turn off the iron, my house might not have burned down. If we had a better sense of the sentiments of the country, this election might have turned out differently.” A "might have been" world is a pretty sad and frustrating place in which to live.
I actually think it would be very freeing to speak a language that didn’t have verbs that allow us to talk about what might have been if things had been different in the days gone by. But of course we don’t have to speak a subjunctive-free language to move away from a might have been world - all we need to do is live in the world that “is.”
Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, once observed:
The past is gone.
The future is not yet here.
If we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment,
we cannot be in touch with life.
When the old Vietnamese dad heard the explanation of what a “subjunctive” means, he told his son: “That’s kind of dumb isn’t it? Why would you want to talk about something that never happened?”
I think he’s right - I think it is kind of dumb to do that.