Saturday, June 26, 2010

What Happens When You Drop a Cup?

They say there's something called reality. But our perception of reality isn't always the same. The way people see what's happening around them – or how they happen – could sometimes be so varied that an incident may look quite different when you hear it described by two individuals.

OK, this is nothing new; we know it's human nature. It's well known that how someone interprets reality is influenced by that person's background and past experience. And it seems that the language we speak also plays a certain role in this regard.

One clear example happens to be the way speakers of different tongues tend to visualise the act of inadvertently 'dropping' something. We know it happens to all of us. We pick up a cup to drink something – or perhaps to wash it – but we somehow lose the grip. The next thing you know, the cup lies in pieces on the ground.

Obviously, hardly anybody does it intentionally. But the English language depicts it as something done by the person handling the cup: ‘I dropped the cup’, ‘He/She dropped the cup’… are among the standard sentences one would use to describe the happening. Even though no one probably means that it was done on purpose, there still seems to be a thinly veiled apportioning of some responsibility to the person involved.

Other languages, however, happen to view the same event somewhat differently. Both German and French have expressions that say ‘I let the cup fall’, i.e. ‘Ich habe die Tasse fallen lassen’ and ‘J’ai laissé tomber la tasse’ respectively. Now you might argue that ‘dropping something’ and ‘letting something fall' would be the same thing. Maybe yes, but for my part I still feel a slightly higher nuance of responsibility in the English way.

Then come Spanish and many Asian languages that have a distinctly different way of talking about such a thing. Spanish speakers generally would say ‘Se me cayó la taza’ – which roughly translates as ‘The cup fell from me’. So in this case there's no denying the lessened sense of responsibility on the part of the human being. The object has rather fallen of its own free will. 

It looks as if our mother tongue influences, without even our knowledge, how we think of what takes place in our world. Some even claim that this simple example illustrates a fundamental difference in the world view of people speaking these different languages. It's said that English speakers are conditioned by their language itself to assume more personal responsibility for things happening around them while speakers of languages like Spanish are allowed to see them more as a result of destiny. The latter is true of many Asian languages too.

Though this laid-back attitude of Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, for example, has been blamed by some US sociologists for the general backwardness of the South American countries, its opposite present in the English language probably explains the higher rates of neuroticism observed in US society too. Asians were also considered that way by the Westerners some time back, but the current developments in the Asian region show that its residents aren't quite letting destiny decide everything for them.

(Image credit: Gunjan Karun


  1. Very interesting post, thanks! Never knew this aspect of a language.. My mind naturally compared the situation Sinhalese.. කෝප්පෙ වැටුනා vs මගෙ අතින් කෝප්පෙ වැටුනා..

  2. @Dee
    Sinhalese 'මගෙ අතින් කෝප්පෙ වැටුනා' seems to occupy some middle ground between 'The cup fell from me' and 'I dropped the cup'.

  3. Technically, I'm a Canadian now. But, I'm laid-back as any other Sri lankan, as it is in my blood. (හුහ්, මුන්දලා කොහෙද අපිව හදන්නෙ? අපි සිංහල) Having said that, when it come to desperate situations, we will perform just like any other Westerner.

    With Americans, I have a love-hate relationship - hate them, but can't live without them.

    මේක ඉස්සුවෙ අරුණී ශපීරෝගෙ බ්ලොග් එකෙන් -
    We speak no Americano:

  4. @Siribiris
    I think all of us are influenced by the various cultural experiences we undergo in life. The way we react to a particular situation may vary, depending on which culture has shaped our thinking in other similar situations.


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