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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Who dunnit? The not-so-insignificant quirks of language

by Lena Groeger
When it comes to cognitive processes like memory, judgment and decision-making, humans are subject to all sorts of biases and seemingly trivial influences. Now, add one more to that list: peculiar habits of language.
Several studies in the past year have hinted at the many subtle ways in which the language you speak can play a role in how you remember events, make judgments of blame and responsibility, and dole out punishment. Specifically, psychologists and linguists have looked at how different languages construct agency, and the implications that follow.
First, let’s take a look at how speakers of different languages actually describe actions and outcomes in which an “agent” is involved. English speakers typically use agentive expressions to describe accidents: “I broke the vase.” Non-agentive expressions, like “mistakes were made” often sound evasive. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, typically describe those same accidents as passive occurrences: “se me rompió el florero,” or translated literally: “the vase broke itself to me.” Spanish or English speakers are clearly not locked into only one way of saying things, but these general patterns of language often make certain expressions sound more natural.
To demonstrate these patterns, psychologists Lera Boroditsky and Caitlin Fausey had English and Spanish speakers watch videos of various events in which a man interacts with an object. In some cases, the event is clearly intentional — he picks up a pencil, deliberately snaps it in half, and then smiles contentedly. In other cases, it is clearly an accident — he is in the midst of writing when the pencil breaks and he throws his hands up in surprise. After watching these videos, subjects were asked to describe what had just happened.
When describing intentional events, English and Spanish speakers used agentive expressions like “he broke the pencil” equally. But when describing accidental events, English speakers used agentive expressions much more often than Spanish speakers. So an accidental event would be described in English as “he popped the balloon,” but in Spanish as “the balloon popped.” Same event, different description, based entirely on the language of the subject.
Mere description is one thing — memory is quite another. To test whether language would play a role in how well subjects could remember agents, Boroditsky conducted a second study. She had subjects watch videos of events featuring an actor in a blue shirt or a different actor in a yellow shirt. Later, they saw the same event performed by a third actor, and had to recall who (blue or yellow) had performed the original. English and Spanish speakers remembered who performed the intentional events equally well, but not so with the accidental events. In those cases, Spanish speakers had a much harder time remembering who did it. Spanish speakers didn’t have worse memory overall — the discrepancy only showed up with accidental events. In other words, memories about who did what seem to be influenced by how much emphasis a language places on the who.
In both the previous examples, subjects produced their own descriptions of events. But what happens, as it often does in the real world, when those descriptions are provided by others? A few studies suggest that descriptions can have a profound influence on another cognitive process in which agency is of utmost importance: judgments of guilt or blame.
Remember the Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” of 2004? In an amusing study, subjects (all English speakers this time) read one of two versions of a description of the event, containing either the phrase “he tore the bodice” or “the bodice tore.” People who read the first version blamed Timberlake more and fined him 53% more heavily than those who read the second version. This was true even when, in addition to reading a written description, subjects watched a video of the incident. In other words, even after witnessing the tearing with their own eyes, subjects’ judgments of blame and punishment were dependent on the phrasing used to describe it.
Which raises an interesting question. Could it be that speakers of different languages dole out more or less severe punishments depending on the frequency of agentive expressions in their language? The research isn’t there yet, but it remains an intriguing possibility.
All of these findings are not just entertaining factoids about language use. They suggest that patterns in language might actually shape how people construe and reason about events. And that has real world consequences, particularly in legal contexts. The specific language used in police reports, legal statements, court testimony, and public discourse is full of descriptions that influence not only verdicts of guilt or innocence but also the sentencing process.
Regardless of how the nuances of language shape our judgments and memory, there is one very practical instance in which description of agency makes a huge difference: in translation. Linguist Luna Filipovic describes a case in California in which a Spanish-speaking suspect was accused of manslaughter. He told the interrogator: “se me cayó,” which translates literally: “to me it happened that she fell.” It was translated for the court as "I dropped her." Do these two phrases really mean the same thing? Would they mean the same thing to a juror? Not so clear.
What is clear is how susceptible we are to habits of expression or twists of translation. And we’re only just beginning to understand the consequences.


  1. I have long maintained that you can learn a lot about a culture by its language. There's an old adage that some inuit languages have a lot of different words that mean 'snow' (but those who cite it often overlook that English has a lot of them, too. Flurry, blizzard, slush, etc...)

    Here are some thoughts that help to illustrate the point better:
    -- most Slavic languages only introduced the word 'compromise' into the language within the past couple of centuries. How does this contribute to the perception that "meeting someone halfway" is a sign of weakness?
    -- Is there an inherent misogyny in the Russian language because (1) six of the seven deadly sins are feminine in gender, and (2) the words meaning 'to marry" are different for men and women, with a woman "assuming her place behind the man"?
    -- French slang includes a significant number of terms associated with food and eating, almost as many as exist for sex acts and related body parts.

    And that's not even getting into questions about inflection and tone of voice when speaking. There is an extent to which we might subconsciously judge people based upon their accents (both as foreigners speaking the language and also the local dialect of the native speaker). That, too, has cultural implications.

    I'd like to see more studies surrounding this factor, especially from the perspective of the justice system. If there's already, at least in the United States, a disproportionate number of hispanic and African American people in our prisons, could there be a linguistic component to this, which people might not be recognizing? Do linguistic variations possibly breed a form of xenophobia or racism?

  2. Really illuminating post. As a speaker of both English and Spanish (besides French, Portuguese, Italian and some German) I fully understand the cases cited by Lena, and really pity the hapless mistranslated Latino suspect at that Californian court.
    I often wonder what is the influence on English or other languages speakers when one word has two meanings in one language, which are represented by two different words in the other languages. For instance, to use the Slavic example brought by jimgphynn, the Spanish word "compromiso" may mean "compromise" or "commitment" depending on context. And of course "compromise" may mean a middle-ground negotiated solution to a dispute, as in "We reached a compromise solution", or a potential damage befalling on something, as in "security was compromised" (which in Spanish is not likely to be based on the word "compromiso" but on a totally different turn of phrase such as "se puso en riesgo la seguridad" (security was put at risk). This is not a Latin vs Saxon quirk: in Italian, for instance, commitment and compromise are different: "impegno" and "compromesso" respectively.
    My own subjective feeling with the use of non agentive words in Spanish as compared with English related to taking responsibility. A child that just broke a vase would say "the vase broke", just a Spanish speaker would say "se me rompió el vaso" or more simply "el vaso se rompió" (literally "the vase broke itself"). May this have to do with the different approaches of Protestants and Catholics to personal responsibility, or perhaps the different approaches of those growing (since Magna Charta) within a personal-independence context (my home is my castle) versus those living within a more authoritarian religious-political context under absolute monarchs and a watchful church, as in Spain? (I refer to the formative stage of both languages and usages in their present form, i.e. from the Middle Ages to the post-Reformation era).

  3. One rather fundamental difference (fundamental for philosophical purposes) between Spanish (and Italian or Portuguese) versus English (and French) is the rendering of the verb "to be" either as "ser" or "estar". "Ser" reflects a more permanent state or a more essential quality, while "estar" refers to a more transient state. So, "I am sick" is translated as "Yo soy enfermo" when the illness is permanent, as in "I am a leper" or "I am a sick person", while "Estoy enfermo" refers to temporary illnesses such as "I have a cold", or "I am sick now". A lot of nuanced statements in philosophy may rest on this distinction, for which English speakers need context or some more convoluted phrase. A well known joke in Spanish about psychiatric asylums goes "No son todos los que están, ni están todos los que son", i.e. "neither all those inside are crazy, nor all the crazy are inside". The joke is lost in translation, due to that pesky distinction between "ser" and "estar".

  4. Regarding the difference in remembering who did something accidentally, how is it known that the difference is due to language as opposed to a different way of thinking about, say, responsibility? If it is possible within Spanish to describe accidents as is in English--that is, in a way that emphasizes more greatly who had the accident--which would seem possible, then it seems it would have to be said that the emphasis, or lack thereof, was placed by the speaker (or perhaps culture) rather than the language ifself.
    While it makes sense that how a situation is described influences how people interpret it, the idea that emphasis of any kind is literally built into language seems questionable.

  5. Yeah, I'm with Paul on this one. What about English speakers in England versus English speakers in America, or Spanish speakers in Spain versus Spanish speakers in Mexico? I think a cross-cultural analysis is necessary here to begin to understand whether or not this is cultural more than linguistic. I remain unconvinced that this is due solely to language and not other cultural factors.

  6. It is true, as Paul suspected, that you can say "I broke the vase" in Spanish as you do in English. It is only not the usual way: one stresses the accidental and unintentional character of the event by saying "the vase broke" (el florero se rompió) or "the vase broke to me" (el florero se me rompió). The allusion to "me" just means the accident happened while I was handling the vase (it happened "during my watch"), but without implying my causal intervention. It may still be "my responsibility" inasmuch as it happened "in my watch", but it was clearly an accident. Instead, saying "Yo rompí el florero" (I broke the vase) implies intentionality.
    Since the experiment kept everything constant except the form of the phrase, it is clear that it is not the culture at large but the specific use of language to describe the incident what caused the recall (or lack thereof). What culture may have caused is the tendency of saying it differently in Spanish-based and English-based languages, possibly because the original bearers of the language shared different values (say, the British and the Spaniards of 5-6 centuries ago).
    I do not think trying it in Britain and the US (or for that matter, Britain and Uganda, or Britain and Guyana) will tell much: all those countries inherited English along with elements of the British culture at the formative stage of the language. Of course, particular versions of English bear traces of other local cultures and historical experiences.

  7. What is this "formative" stage of English that you speak of? You do realize that language changes along a continuum, yes? There were not all of the sudden some "founding fathers" of English who passed down their values encoded in a monolithic unchanging language for the rest of the world.

    So, how is it that you can possibly think that culture will have no impact on how people verbalize their experiences? And how can you possibly say that "it is clear that it is not culture" when they never did a cross-cultural study? You are drawing conclusions not based on any sort of evidence, but on your own gut feelings about language and culture.

    (By the way, a lot of these things have been discussed in some detail in sociolinguistic and anthropological literature. Dell Hymes in particular explored the role of speech events and human experiences and relations back in the 1960s, and solidified linguistic anthropology as one of the four major subfields of the discipline.)

  8. Also, the authors address exactly what we are talking about towards the end of the paper. Language, they say (and I agree), is a subset of culture; they influence each other. To say culture is unimportant is to say language itself is unimportant.

    Of particular interest, the authors say: "Much evidence from cross-national comparisons as well as from priming studies has demonstrated that cultural context can influence a wide range of behaviors (see Oyserman and Lee, 2008, for one review). An additional source of evidence comes from research showing that bicultural individuals can behave more like members of one culture or another, depending on which culture is cued in the testing context."

    Seems pretty clear that culture has a big impact on how people verbalize their experiences.

  9. Hector, you wrote: "Since the experiment kept everything constant except the form of the phrase, it is clear that it is not the culture at large but the specific use of language to describe the incident what caused the recall (or lack thereof)."

    Well, one thing they didn't keep constant, or factor out, with regard to the two linguistic groups was culture. Presumably, the Spanish speakers and the English speakers differed culturally as well as linguistically.

    The experiments that Will suggests seem like a way to see to some extend how much of the difference remembering accident performers is culture. If native Spanish speakers from different parts of the world yielded different outcomes, that would be some evidence that the relevant difference is cultural rather than linguistic. If the outcomes were the same, there would still be the question of latin versus anglo culture.

    To me it seems that what the researches did was note that (1) Spanish speakers use more-passive constructions for accidents, note that (2) Spanish speakers had more difficulty in remembering performers of accidents, and (3) conclude that (1) is the cause of (2).

    On the surface this seems quite dubious. Perhaps Lena with shed some light.

  10. Of course, Will, language changes all the time, and Old English began about 1000 years before Shakespeare. What I meant is that most of the present and shared usage (common to British, Americans, Australians etc), such as the agentive forms mentioned by Lena, emerged roughly in the High Middle Ages and Early Modern times, say between Chaucer and Shakespeare or little later, and the same happened to Spanish, which started with medieval writings like the Cid and was more or less in its modern shape by the 1600s. These prevalent modes of speaking, say agentive or passive, started then, and got diffused to the entire empires of the British and Spanish crowns. Other habits and dialects emerged later, allowing you to distinguish between Brit and US English, or between, say the Spain and Chile versions of Spanish.
    My first argument was that global differences between, say, Spanish and English should come from the "formative" centuries of both languages, say from the 12th to the 17th centuries, before modern dialects arose. And of course those differences responded to differences in culture (I mentioned some hypotheses in that regard).

  11. Hector, does "putting the cart before the horse" convey the same admonitory tone in Spanish as it does in English?

  12. 'Se me cayó' can also be translated as 'I forgot.'

    Which is another good example of active and passive in the two languages.

  13. "Traduttore, traditore" is one of my favorite sayings that comes to mind when talking about such subjects -- which I'm quite interested in, although it's not even close to my field.

    I had the same worries as Will and Paul about the real cause-effect relationship here, but, similar to what Hector mentioned, I am not so sure how well we could separate them. As said above, the language is clearly not inherited in a vacuum, sterilized and ready to be applied to a new culture, so who knows how much of the original milieu is still around... I hope someone figures out a good way to do such analyses, but I will "wait seated", as we say in Brazilian Portuguese.

    It is definitely an old and popular notion that your language influences how you think, or even what you can think. There is an old Brazilian song called that says something like "it's proven that it's only possible to philosophize in German", which I suspect, given the rest of the lyrics, the author does not mean literally, but as an expression of this feeling of language influencing thought. "Minha pátria é a língua portuguesa" (my homeland if the Portuguese language), said Fernando Pessoa, and other poets might have said something to the same effect in other languages. And that's why I try to learn as many languages as I can... :-)

  14. Nice article. Good comments.

    No verbs above ;-)

    Seriously : may I recommend readers put "Women,Fire and Dangerous Things" on their reading lists?

  15. I teach some English and when discussing the passive voice, I have always asserted that, in English, every unfortunate occurrence is always someone's fault. Not so in Italian. I enjoy the blog!


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