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.