Had Hamlet been living in Canton as opposed to Copenhagen then, well, we’d be free of this insufferably oft-quoted soliloquy. Mandarin does not (at least when describing something) have a verb to be. It seems instead that the Chinese use a little linguistic device called the stative verb – a kind of glorified adjective uniting noun with the other (lesser) adjective. Thus, we get tā hěn gāo, or he [stative verb] tall. The beauty of hěn is that it conveys the idea of the man possessing this adjective without crudely saying he is the adjective or he has the adjective – its part of him. This, in my opinion, forces us to reflect on what the verb to be actually means for the Prince of Denmark and for the rest of the Anglophone world.
Let’s start with the French. In Paris, pimping up the powers of être has become almost a national sport. Philosophes abound whose (tax-funded) specialism is in ontology - the ‘study’ of being. The cannier ones (Camus, Sartre, et al) make their money by plugging an existentialist world-view which wastes adherents lives (and my reading time) asking why the hell am I? Descartes himself equated the perfectly respectable verb penser with the être the magnificent. And even Hamlet the Dane is guilty of it – morphing “to be or not be” into a discussion on the relative merits of existence and whatever else there is or isn’t.
Yet Mandarin serves to remind us that to be is no intrinsic magic to être, sum or to be. Its not an absolute, nor some deeper truth, let alone a universal. Castilian Spanish, for example, distinguishes between ser and estar – ser is to immutably and always be, while estar is to be in the state of. Thus the Spaniards recognize that things do in fact change. But its not like English-speakers don’t; we just express it implicity. If I say “I am a pupil” you don’t suddenly assume I am a student forever. Indeed, I’ll (thankfully) be gone soon. Gaidhlig, interestingly, shirks to be completely, saying instead tha mi nam sgoilear which rather amusing translates as I am in a pupil. Paedophilia aside, we realize how obsession with to be as the key to understanding our own existence is just plain stupid. I mean Gaidhlig has one form of to be for adjectives and another for nouns,
By putting to be on pedestal, we create an intellectual cul-de-sac, a descent ino linguistic determinism. As we have seen, in Mandarin the mountain is big translates tomountain [stative verb]big. A guy calledZhou Youguang (who I discovered in Peter Watson’s wonderful book, Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud) claims that as a direct result of lacking a proper verb to be,
“The Chinese did not develop the idea of identity in logic or the concept of substance in philosophy. And without these concepts there could be no idea of causality and science.”
He argues that because the Chinese never say the mountain is big then they must have no concept of mountains possessing the quality of bigness. Thus, for the Chinese, induction from the material world is rendered impossible. Scientific observation, testing by experiment, extrapolation of results, all of it can’t be done, he says, because the Chinese don’t use this titchy little verb.
This poor man’s fall to absurdity just shows how easily we can be mesmerized by to be. The historical reasons for science not arising in China are myriad – centralized government, blinding respect for the classics, etc. (see David Landes, The Wealth and Povetry of Nations, for a sturdy analysis of this Oriental failure) – but Mandarin is not among them. It is simple commonsense that speaking Mandarin is no barrier to being a scientist - just look at Nobel Prize lists. We do history a disservice if we bow before the tyranny of linguistic determinism. We do linguistics a disservice if we exorcize rationality in favour of hyperbolic philosophizing. And we do the verb to be - a verb integral to the grammar of English, without which we’d be stuck and sounding silly, without which we’d never have that rightfully oft-quoted soliloguy, without which Hamlet would never have bothered to set up the Mouse Trap - a disservice if we let it be usurped by those who seek to build their intellectual edifice atop it.