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

how European languages evolved
April 20, 2015, 8:12 pm
Filed under: chronotopes, departure lounge | Tags: , ,

language family
November 5, 2014, 8:14 pm
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lexical distance
January 26, 2014, 2:16 pm
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Lexical Distance Network Among the Major Languages of Europe

Some observations from someone who has read woefully little history and knows only one and a half languages. Of the European languages there are three groupings that dominate: Germanic, Slavic and Romance: the northern low landers, the easterners and the Mediterranean; and several that are secondary: Finno-Ugric, Baltic, Celtic, Greek and Albanian. The secondary languages are either old empires that didn’t gain enough geographic or cultural influence (Greek, Hungarian) or groups that were isolated or pushed back by invasion and expansion (Baltic, Celtic).

English is Germanic because of its history of low land invasion but also tied closely to French / Romance because of the Norman invasion. We trace our western history back to the Greek and Roman Empires. The Roman is represented by the Romance group, a great swath that covers much of the north shore of the Mediterranean where the Empire dominated. The Greek is isolated, because its empire is older and didn’t extend as far geographically.

From Etymologikon blog by Teresa Elms

The original research data for the chart comes from K. Tyshchenko (1999), Metatheory of Linguistics. (Published in Russian.)

shot through with intentions and accents
July 2, 2012, 10:49 pm
Filed under: brave new world, unseen world | Tags: , ,

We used to think Canada and Switzerland were neutral.  Small countries without much influence, ineffective armies, reliant on diplomacy and being nice.  Now Canada is known as a rather slutty broker for minerals, ores and natural resources and Switzerland is where our fat cats go to hide their ill gotten lucre.  Neutrality in the globalized market fundamentalized 21st century?  How naive.

When I did my liberal arts undergrad, the curriculum was Western historical canon dominated.  But there were whispers and agitations from speculative and peripheral schools.  They were called ‘readings:’  feminist reading, Marxist reading, gender reading etc.

Believing a country can be neutral is like believing there is one grand historical or political etc truth.  Countries and institutions and schools are logically as willful as the people who run them.

Words, the base element in every political act, aren’t neutral either.  Each jot and tittle brims with intention and nuance.  Every inflection meant to sway or to push right to and even over the breach.

Here’s Mikhail Bakhtin on how words are fully corrupted by influence:

“As a result of the stratifying forces in language, there are no ‘neutral’ words and forms––words and forms that can belong to ‘no one’; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system…but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world. All the words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour…all words are populated by intentions…

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogic Imagination

Dialogic Tectonic, Scott Francisco

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.

Continue reading

there’s an ant on your southeast leg
June 29, 2009, 11:21 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

From the article by sociologist Lera Boroditsky on the relationship between language, our bodies, and the space around us.  The past isn’t necessarily behind us, things aren’t always properly ordered left to right and, don’t look now but there’s a bug on your southwest leg.

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”