If My Life Were a Language, It Would Be One Without Auxiliary verbs

The word auxiliary comes from the Latin auxilium ‘to help.’ An auxiliary verb is just that: something that influences tense, mood, and voice of other verbs. It’s a helping verb. It exists in English in the form of do, be, have and a handful of others that don’t show up as frequently (see, do not show up as frequently). French also has two auxiliary verbs, être (to be) and avoir (to have), as does German and Spanish. Russian, Chinese, and Thai, however, have no auxiliary verbs. So why do some languages have them, and others don’t? What’s the difference?

What if I wanted to ask in Chinese ‘why do some languages have auxiliary verbs, and other’s don’t?’ My grammar would turn out to be ‘why some language have auxiliary verb’? (I’ll admit, I don’t know how to say the second clause without making it into a second sentence) Sounds ridiculous in English but 為什麼些種語言用助動詞? Why do some of our languages have plurals and others don’t? Why do we have relative pronouns? Why does language exist? And how do we wrap our minds around this besides the common Chinese answer of 沒有為什麼 (Literally ‘No have why’)

Today my small friends finished their second textbook, and asked me what the word ‘congratulations’ meant (thank you, chapter on weddings in my Chinese book). Our last lesson had to do with farms. This was easy as pie for these kids, and I went around the table asking them one at a time, “What do you see on the farm?”

“I see pig on the farm,” one said.

“Pigs, I corrected. How many pigs do you see?”

“I see three pigs,” the student said.

The next student struggled to find the plural of horse. “I see horse,” she said.

“Horses,” I corrected. “How many horses do you see?”

“I see two horses,” the student said.

The next student fell into a trap. “I see four sheeps,” she said.

I gave her a sad, understanding look.

“Four sheep,” I corrected. “One sheep, two sheep, three sheep, no sheep.”

“Why?” one of the students asked.

“Because English is weird,” I told them, using the Chinese word qí guài instead of English.

During my time in Thailand and my time in Taiwan I’ve noticed that people who speak these kinds of languages — languages without plurals, without articles, without conjugated verbs, without auxiliary verbs — substantially struggle with English. At the same time, when I’m learning Chinese I can basically guess at a word and understand it. As for writing the characters, it’s a lot simpler than people make it out to be. There are only so many radicals, and most characters are made up of other characters. Once you know how to write 500, you can learn how to write 500 more pretty easily. It doesn’t help you guess the meaning when you run into a character you don’t know, but it does make it a lot easier to remember the words. As for English? Phonics make sense, but only to a point.

When one of my students was three she told me she loved me. I said, “I love you, too.”

“I love you, three!” she said. While a native English speaker might understand this to be a joke, my student literally had thought that loving someone was quantifiable in integers. Eventually she learned how to say “I love you infinity” and, following that, “I love you infinity-two.”

A group of second graders has trouble with rhyming. They explain to each other in Chinese that words rhyme if they have the same spelling at the end, such as redbed, and fed. I am careful at this point to explain in Chinese that this is not always the case. I write down their, they’re, there, where, hair, mare, dare, care, lair, pear, pair. I read all of the words to the students and ask if they rhyme. The students struggle.

In Chinese there are only a limited number of sounds. 是 (be) 市 (city) 事 (matter) 式 (style) 時 (time) 十 (ten) 使 (messenger) 世 (world) 失 (arrow) 食 (food) 試 (try) 濕 (wet) 實 (truth) and 獅 (lion) are all phonetically spelled ‘shi.’ Even with tones and context, it can get confusing.

So is either better? Both work at their job: they allow us to communicate. Using letters or characters or pictures we are able to convey our history, our emotions, our needs, our thoughts. To those of us who have to study for the GRE and find out the meaning spendthrift is the exact opposite of one who is thrifty with their money wonder why we need so many ways to convey something, when other languages have simplistic and straightforward ways to communicate. In some instances there exists only one way to convey a thought. In English, that is almost never the case. It’s frequently untrue in English. It’s extremely rare in English for this to be the case. This virtually never happens in English.

Native English speakers may shrug. Who cares? We get they all mean the same thing.

But imagine if you had learned from a text book, “This rarely occurs in English.” Now tell me what clues you can get from the other sentences, if your vocabulary is not very expanded.

We’re different people in the languages we speak. My partner, bilingual in English and French, is easy going and sarcastic. When he speaks French he isn’t easily brought to laughter, and he more frequently uses honorifics. He’s quieter, more introspective. In English he’s boisterous and the life of the party. In English I am serious and straightforward. In Thai I’m cute and giggly. In Chinese I often speak in a higher tone of voice and go out of my way to be more respectful. I feel like a different person.

So what is it about language that changes us? What is it about the stringing together of letters or phonemes and vowel sounds that changes the way we think about the world? And why do some languages have auxiliary verbs, while others don’t?

Either way, if I had to be a language, I would be Chinese, I think. Maybe Japanese. Something systematic and straightforward, with the ability to shift and change. And lyrical. Don’t forget lyrical.

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