According to this article, the avoidance of passive voice in English profoundly affects the way English speakers construct notions of causality and agency. “English speakers,” the article says, “tend to say things like ‘John broke the vase’ even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say, ‘the vase broke itself.’” As a result of their linguistic choices, the minds of English speakers register the agents involved, whether they acted intentionally or not. In contrast, speakers of languages where accidents are linguistically marked off remember only those agents who intentionally caused an event to occur:
In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn’t normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn’t encode or remember the agent as well.
The wording in this portion of the otherwise very intriguing article made it sound as if English speakers are oblivious to the difference between accidents and intentional events. The tabloids certainly make it seem so. But I think the article misrepresented the English translations from Spanish and Japanese. Bulgarian speakers also use the middle voice to describe accidents, and the literal translation in the case of the broken vase sounds exactly the same – “the vase broke itself.” And even though I sometimes might use it for kicks, there is a perfectly legitimate corresponding phrase in English: “The vase broke.”
If language shapes our notions of causality and agency, what are the notions we form when we say that a vase breaks? Or that a woman broke her leg in a fall? Or that a plane crash killed all 152 people on board? Things get even more convoluted with the insertion of the nebulous English verb “to get.” Getting convoluted is a serious affair – things are certainly to blame for their own convolution! Indeed, elves and fairies twist and twirls us:
“When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme. […] To the best of my recollection, my fraud began in the early nineteen-nineties.”
Now that I think of it, the Bulgarian equivalent of the English passive voice sounds funny and bookish, so I avoid it when speaking Bulgarian. The English passive voice sounds much less conceited in comparison. O the psychological generalizations I can sweep from this juxtaposition! What say you, gentle bleaders?