Thinking in Chinese

Earlier in Why can’t I process my thoughts like you do? I talked about the different ways in which cultural groups process reality. From very young each of us are exposed to specific cultural and linguistic patterns which we use as cognitive tools to arrive at certain conclusions. But I wanted to dig a little deeper when it came to Chinese thought processing. I kept on wondering whether the ideographic nature of the Chinese language contributes in making Chinese speakers conceptualise and understand reality in a way that is different to those of us who are used to alphabetised languages.

So, my question is:  Do I, a person brought up reading and writing a phonemic alphabet, process the world differently from him (below), a person brought up reading and writing an ideographic language?


What I found is interesting, but not conclusive.

For a start, let’s think about the differences between phonemic writing (where letters represent phonemes or basic significant sounds) of the spoken language and ideographic or logographic writing systems.

1. Phonemic versus logographic writing systems

Phonemic writing systems

Words in phonemic writing systems are spelled in a consistent, pre-established manner rather than according to how they sound.

For instance, if the English word Kissed was spelt how it sounds, it would be written as kist.

The spelling of a word in phonemic writing systems consists of meaningless phonemic letters matched to meaningless phonemic sounds. The phonetic value of a concept is completely irrelevant to other aspects of it, such as the social or the physical. That is, a phonemic letter (or a combination of phonemic letters) has been arbitrarily assigned to a phonemic sound and meaning. As Ferdinand de Saussure explained, the combination of phoneme and meaning is result of a totally arbitrary decision and the concept created could be represented just as well in the language by any another arbitrary concept.

Jonathan Culler puts it this way:

There is no natural or inevitable link between the signifier and signified. Since I speak English I may use the signifier represented by dog to talk about an animal of a particular species, but this sequence of sounds is no better suited to that purpose than another sequence. Lod, tet, or bloop would serve equally well if it were accepted by members of my speech community. There is no intrinsic reason why one of these signifiers rather than another should be linked with the concept of a “dog.” (Note that here, . . . I use italics to cite linguistic forms [e.g.,dog, lod] and quotation marks to designate meanings [e.g., “dog”].)

So, in simple words: a meaningless phonemic element or sound is here  represented with equally meaningless visual signs or the letters of alphabet.  The sound and they way is written are disassociated from the concept.

Logographic writing systems

In logographic writing systems, on the other hand, the arbitrariness of the language described above is overcome by granting an inherent meaning to the ideograph. So, an ancient Chinese speaker, for instance, in looking at this pictograph (which one could associate to navigating upstream in a river),  will have no chance to perceive the arbitrary connection between the sound and concept and will immediately associate it with the notion “up”.

And when looking at they would think about the opposite, “down”.

One could speculate that because ideographic writing does not facilitate the perception of the arbitrary relationship between the sound and concept, the process of ontological enquiry does not take place as it does in the case of phonemic languages. But I’ll get to that shortly.

2. Grammatical patterns – Counterfactual thought

Another major difference between Chinese and other languages is its grammatical structure. Verbs don’t present any of the inflections that we are so accustomed to particularly in the Latin languages, in terms of tense, person, voice and mood. A verb never changes and it has the same shape and form always.  Instead, in order to indicate difference in time, voice and mood, Chinese language relies on relational words such as 如果 ru2guo (if) or jiu (then).

Therefore, one could say that Chinese has not developed a specific a grammatical structure that allows its speakers to express what has been known as ‘counterfactual reasoning’ –  a mode of thinking that is contrary to fact and which speculates as to what might have been or what could have happened had some detail or event in the past occurred differently.

Roese (2005) points out that counterfactual reasoning allows the exploration of causation and, in some cases, the acknowledgement of blame, it can lead to experiencing regret, while it also provides us with an alternative to the way things are currently considered normal. Counterfactual thinking requires simultaneously holding two different construals of a given state of affairs.

Let’s have a look at the following comparison:

“If I had gone shopping that evening, I could not have had dinner with my younger sister.”

The Chinese equivalent is

“Rúguǒ wǒ qù gòuwù nèitiān wǎnshàng, wǒ jiu bù néng gen wo de mèimei chī wǎnfàn. ”

(If I go shopping that day evening, I then not able with my younger sister go eat dinner)

In Chinese, because of its lack of verb inflections, more contextual information is required to understand when the event took place.   As a consequence of having a grammatical structure that does not rely on verbal variation, it has been speculated (and widely debated) that  it is easier for speakers of Western languages to deviate from reality and enter the realm of counterfactual reasoning than for speakers of Chinese (Bloom, 1979).  And one might conclude that perhaps  counterfactual reasoning amongst Chinese speakers may be compromised in some situations—namely, those in which general world knowledge is insufficient to indicate the counterfactual nature of the premise.  But then again, more conclusive research is needed in this area.

3.  Development of philosophical thought

As I mentioned in section 1, logographic writing does not seem to facilitate the perception of the arbitrariness between sound and meaning.  This could account for the fact that ontological enquiry (a philosophical enquiry into what exists), a very common practice in Western thought, seems to be less prevalent in Chinese speaking countries.

For instance, let’s take “water”, a substance found everywhere on the surface of the Earth in various shapes and states. So, the  ontological question regarding water would be to ask what is water , or what is the common property shared by water in its various forms. Scientific research undertaken in the West has looked into finding the ideal and common form of all these shapes, and found that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O).  This mental process, which moves from the study of a particular form of water to a universal form, is known as abstraction.

Chinese thought does not seem to be as concerned with finding  what the universal state of water is. According to classical Chinese thought, water is one of five basic elements of the universe (the other four being metal, wood, fire and earth), all of them considered to be  non-analytical final entities. Chinese science seemed to have been satisfied with the fact that water is not fire, wood, metal or earth, but is not interested in further abstracting this particular entity, as would a more abstract Western mind.  While Western ontology looks for differences, Chinese philosophy looks  for connections.


This is just a very quick teaser of a topic which requires a much more in depth analysis.  I think this type of enquiries should be encouraged because by better understanding the differences between us we will be able to build bridges that rest on more solid foundations.


If you have any thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear from you.





Bloom, A. H. (1979). “The Impact of Chinese Linguistic Structure on Cognitive Style.” Current Anthropology 20(3).

Culler, Jonatha, 1976. Saussure. London: Fontana Modern Masters; Brighton: Harvester, 1976.


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