Are there major languages in the world that construct conditional clauses differently than English? That is, the translation of "if" and associated words would not be direct due to different structuring of conditional speech. In German, for instance, "if" is translated directly to "wenn" and conditional clauses are constructed similarly to English. Are there any languages that differ significantly from this "linguistic model" of logic?

I'm trying to understand whether there is some relativity in how logical, conditional thoughts are expressed in different languages and cultures.

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    IF is one of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage's semantic primes, so it at least exists in every language. – curiousdannii Oct 29 '20 at 14:57
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    @curiousdannii: In German, the word for "if" can be dropped sometimes, as in Wäre jetzt gerade schönes Wetter, dann würde ich draußen sein "If the whether were nice right now, I'd sit outside". – jk - Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '20 at 15:03
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    Unfortunately, this nice question is not covered by WALS – jk - Reinstate Monica Oct 29 '20 at 15:05
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    English makes a distinction based on whether there is - or the speaker acknowledges - a possibility that a future condition will not be fulfilled. Hence if you get the job, we'll celebrate contrasts with when.... English speakers might be slow to accept that the version with when is conditional at all. Not all languages make such a distinction. An old Thai schoolbook has a mother saying to her daughter if you're as old as your brother, you'll go to school too. Sometimes an if in the original language will not be directly translated, but will become when in English. – rchivers Oct 29 '20 at 18:11
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    if/then/else are frequently talked together, but I'm not sure if there's anything common among them, linguistically speaking. It feels like they just happen to be used together a lot, like none/my/business or happy/new/year. – jick Oct 29 '20 at 21:19

In many languages, for example Bengali, the word comparable to if is optional and frequently absent, whereas the word marking the apodosis (usually with a similar function to then) is mandatory, exactly the opposite way round to English.

Of course, it's dubious whether then has an inherent connection with conditionals in English.


As for the order of things:

"In conditional statements, the conditional clause precedes the conclusion as the normal order in all languages. (...) (Greenberg 1963: 84, #14) (https://typo.uni-konstanz.de/raraneu/universals-archive/501/)

As for the question if there are words for "if", "then" and "else" in all languages: No idea, maybe someone else can answer. My guess would be, no. See also jk's comment that in German, the conjunctive makes the word "if" redundant. In English, you could also say: "Had they told me this, ..." instead of "If they had told me this, then ...". You can surely leave away "then" in these two languages, and replace "else" with "or". I think that we are entering pragmatics territory here, meaning it's not only logic and compositional semantics, but also their actual (conventionalized) interpretation.

Greenberg, Joseph H. (1963). Some universals of grammar, with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Greenberg (ed.) 1963, 73-113. Greenberg, Joseph H. (1964 [1965, 1978e]). Some generalizations concerning initial and final consonant sequences (Russian) Voprosy jazykoznanija 1964-4, 41-65. Translated in Linguistics 18: 5-34. Also published in Greenberg (ed.) 1978, Volume 2, 243-279.

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    What is Greenberg’s argumentation for protasis > apodosis being “the normal order”? Why is “If you buy me a ticket, I’ll come with you” any more ‘normal’ or ‘basic’ than “I’ll come with you if you buy me a ticket”? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 29 '20 at 22:41

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