the vase broke itself

OctaviusDetermine who did it, or assume it was accidental. Hunt the perpetrator or restore the victim. Punishment or restitution. English speakers tend to identify events with agents; Spanish and Japanese speakers don’t remember the agent. This leads to very different kinds of justice; also to very different daily human interactions. From Lost in Translation by Lera Boroditsky:

For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers 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.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

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.


Patterns in language offer a window on a culture’s dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we’ve found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice). So does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?

Lera Boroditsky, Lost in Translation, Wall Street Journal

photograph: Kristan Horton

thicker on the ground
December 15, 2010, 5:03 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

You can use a strict linear process to first establish ideas and employ them to rigorously design something, or you can skip the ideation phase and use accretion and reaction to make something.  The final products will be noticeably different because the ideas and processes are different.

That’s the first idea.  The second is that if the things you are making are major world languages, the speakers of the different tongues will be different.  An ouroboros:  the culture, its people, make the language; and the language makes the people.

The bilingual Luc Sante claims that French is efficient, elegant, delimited, a purring engine.  And English is a ramble of accrued elements no doubt taken over time from different cultures.

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friendly islands
December 5, 2009, 12:57 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: ,

Often the names we know places by is nothing like the names the locals use.  In Italian, it’s not Florence, but Firenze, not Naples but Napoli, not Padua but Padova, not Venice but Venezia, not Milan but Milano, not Genoa but Genova.  To the Danes it’s not Copenhagen but Kobenhavn (pronounced Koopen-howen).  To the Yugoslavians it’s not Belgrade but Beograd.  To the Russians it’s not Moscow but Moskva.  And to the Dutch it’s not The Hague but Den Haag.  The names of countries are even more at variance with their English versions.  Try covering up the left-hand column below and seeing how many you can guess.

Greece – Ellinki Dimokratia

Finland – Suomen Tasavalta

Hungary – Magyar Nepkoztarasag

Albania – Shqiperi

Japan – Nihon

Greenland – Kalatdlit Nunat

Jordan – Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah

South Korea – Han Kook

North Korea – Chosun Minchu-chui Immin Kongwhaguk

Morocco – al-Mamlaka al-Maghrebia

China – Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo

Sweden – Konungariket Sverige

Tonga – Friendly Islands

~from The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson, Penguin 2009

the flock of bridges is bleating this morning

(apollinaire, various iterations | gare saint-lazare | sante)

Luc Sante is the Belgian American writer who wrote Low Life. This is his description of how a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire described perfectly his experience of leaving Belgium. The poem, however, does far more than address his identity as an immigrant: it is a clear revelation, a flash, of his place in the world that lays bare his desire for the clarity of modernity in the face of the confusion of religion. He comes to a point of exhilaration and comfort.

“A la fin tu est las de ce monde ancien.” “In the end you are tired of this old world.” Thus began “Zone,” by Guillaume Apollinaire.

Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin “Shepherdess o Eiffel Tower the flock of bridges is bleating this morning.” The poem was speaking directly to me, to me alone, as proven on the second page: Voilà la jeune rue et tu n’es encore qu’un petit enfant / Ta mère ne t’habille que de bleu et de blanc. “Here is the young street and you are but a little child / Your mother only dresses you in blue and white,” which was exactly true of my early childhood; that tu clinched it. Tu regardes les yeux pleins de larmes ces pauvres émigrants / Ils croient en Dieu ils prient les femmes allaitent des enfants / Ils emplissent de leur odeure le hall de la gare Saint-Lazare. “You look with your eyes filled with tears at the poor immigrants / They believe in God they pray the women suckle infants / They fill with their odor the hall of the Saint-Lazare station”—I had been there and seen that! Furthermore, the poem seemed to be about a yearning for modernity in the face of confusion as to the truth of religion, a clairvoyant depiction of my own central inner drama of the time. But there was more: the poem was fluid, rhyming but in an elastic meter like an improvised song, with phrases strung together without punctuation but always clear in their meaning, with an unlabored syntax close to conversational, with capitalized names like cherries in a box of chocolates, with sudden movements in time and space executed with a casual legerdemain, with a flash and whirl and continual surprise that was just what I wanted from the modern world but with a palpable kindness that reassured me as the poem flung me about.

~excerpted from French Without Tears, by Luc Sante