Language, active and passive

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This is another in my occasional series looking at use of language across different cultures. There is a trend in English to use the active voice: “I had an idea“, “I understood it” and so on. Indeed, in some places, you come across the rather stronger statement that only the active voice is suitable for writing. This is sometimes attributed to George Orwell, though I have also read that he actually meant something entirely different, and I have never actually tracked down his original words!

Delos statues
Delos statues

But this is another of those language constructions which is culturally bound. Some languages, often but not exclusively Asian ones, prefer a passive form here: “An idea came to me“, “Understanding reached me” and so on. If one was speculating on reasons for this, it might be that in modern Europe and America, we like the idea of being agents rather than recipients. Or maybe we like to keep the fiction of absolute self-determination, and rather resent the idea that other things in the universe – especially things we like to think of as abstract qualities – might themselves have agency and intentions towards us.

This casual western assumption (if that is what it is) has come in for some serious knocking in the last few decades, what with quantum mechanical ideas of probability and uncertainty coming in from physics, insights about heredity and genetics from the life sciences, and an appraisal of the effect of the collective unconscious from psychological studies. However, my sense is that these perspectives have a lot of ground to make up before they make any serious inroads into our feelings of being an agent.

What does this mean for writing about other cultures and other times, and especially writing dialogue? Over the past few months I have picked out a number of other ways in which people in the past – or people in various parts of the world today – use language differently. There was repetition, social position, use of personal names, habits of speech, and grammar. It’s certainly a way to differentiate between the thought and word patterns of different people-groups. Some editors, and some reviewers, appear not to like this, and there are certainly big questions as to how far a book written in modern English ought to use constructions like this outside of interpersonal dialogue. I suppose in part it depends on whether the writer wants the internal worlds of his or her characters to impinge onto the main flow of the book.

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