Random notes: how grammatical propensities shape our thoughts

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?


2 thoughts on “Random notes: how grammatical propensities shape our thoughts

  1. The English language opposition to the passive voice has never been understood by me. It’s one of those myriad of rules we learn without learning any reason for it. Kind of like not ending sentences with prepositions, which is the kind of rule up with which I cannot put.
    There used to be a show on A&E where you could watch prisoners presenting their cases to the parole board. A guaranteed way to be denied parole is express remorse thusly: “I’m very sorry this whole thing happened to me.” A criminal who says that is not expressing remorse that he committed the crime, but simply that he was punished for it. He isn’t taking responsibility. “I’m sorry I beat up that old lady” is a much more successful approach.
    The problem with the middle voice, e.g., “the vase broke itself,” is that it isn’t true. The vase didn’t break itself, because it’s an inanimate object. This is where modifiers come in handy. “John broke the vase by accident.”

    1. Yeah, but you do say “The vase broke,” without adding “by accident.” That’s my point – English does have ways to describe accidents. The vase broke to its own disadvantage – a perfect case for middle voice.

      “The woman broke her leg” is a more difficult case – it’s not as if she planned to do it. Or “she got raped” – plenty of research on this one.

      The opposition to the passive voice has something to do with notions of masculinity. Here is a view on the reasons not to use it:

      Generally, use transitive verbs, that strike their object; and use them in the active voice, eschewing the stationary passive, with its little auxiliary its’s and was’s, and its participles getting into the light of your adjectives, which should be few. For, as a rough law, by his use of the straight verb and by his economy of adjectives you can tell a man’s style, if it be masculine or neuter, writing or ‘composition’.

      In 1946, in the essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell recommended the active voice as an elementary principle of composition: “Never use the passive where you can use the active”. In 1993, the The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) states that the:

      Active voice makes subjects do something (to something); passive voice permits subjects to have something done to them (by someone or something). Some argue that active voice is more muscular, direct, and succinct, passive voice flabbier, more indirect, and wordier. If you want your words to seem impersonal, indirect, and noncommittal, passive is the choice, but otherwise, active voice is almost invariably likely to prove more effective.[10]

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