It has been claimed by Alfred Bloom
and others that Chinese does not have counterfactual conditional
sentences, such as English
If I had been born 100 years earlier, I would be dead now.
European languages generally use the subjunctive
mood to express situations that are imagined, contrary to fact. Bloom says that the Chinese
language does not have the means to express such situations, and that "intellectual climate
" has suffered as a result, essentially because (strange to say) Chinese people are unable to hypothesize
. He writes,
Historically speaking, the fact that Chinese has not offered its speakers incentives for thinking about the world in counterfactual and entificational ways is likely to have contributed substantially to sustaining an intellectual climate in which these modes of thinking were less likely to arise.
Alfred Bloom, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought.
This claim about counterfactual thinking
seems to be related to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
In fact, however, Classical Chinese has a number of ways of expressing counterfactual suppositions. Some of these are positive:
shi3 'cause it to be that...'
jia3-shi3 'falsely cause it to be that...'
ruo4-shi3 'if one causes it to be that...'
and there is at least one important negative one:
wei2/1 'were it not that...' ~ 'were it not for...'
These expressions are quite common in Classical texts where logical argumentation takes place. Modern Chinese has comparable expressions.
It thus appears that Chinese lacks not the counterfactual state, but rather the subjunctive mood that European languages use to express that state. That is only to be expected; Chinese relies heavily on auxiliary verbs to express grammatical mood, rather than on morphology.
This writeup is based on material in Christoph Harbsmeier's Language and Logic volume, no. VII:1 in Science and Civilization in China, (Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 116-118.