The Passive Voice

January 24th, 2013

Today I was listening to a radio interview with Tracy Kidder (“The Soul of a New Machine”) talking about non-fiction writing as pertains to his newest book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction and he was asked whether using the passive voice was appropriate. I really liked his answer, which was that it was, “when the thing done is more important than the doer.”

The subject of the passive voice came up during the Intensive Pali Course taught by Professor Gombrich earlier this month. He had mentioned in the handout for the course that there seems to be a particular fondness for the use of the passive in the suttas, and prior to the course, I had wondered about this, so when the subject came up in class, I asked whether this was peculiar to the suttas, or a wider feature of much of the works we have from around this time (which are largely in Sanskrit). His answer was that it was part of a wider trend, not limited to the Pali canon. I remarked that I had wondered if perhaps the passive voice was used in Buddhist texts because of the understanding that there was no self to be the doer of the acts. His answer to this was an amused comment that I should not overthink things.

But that is, of course, what I do. I overthink. I suspect it’s necessary to come up with theories like these about why things were the way they were in order to see anything new. And while my first theory turns out not to be a good fit for the facts, that only means I need to broaden the concept and see where it gets me.

This is part of a long conversation I have been having with anyone who has the slightest interest in the subject of how the structure of our language shapes our view of the world, or conversely, how our view of the world shapes our language — that’s a chicken-and-egg sort of issue, really; the two no doubt go round and round. I have discussed this with Spanish teachers, wondering aloud if the classification of nouns into masculine and feminine affects how we see things, and how we see what is masculine or feminine about people, as a result, for example, of what ideas and characteristics we attach masculinity and femininity to. With my father-in-law, I rued the increasing loss of languages, like Welsh, because with them go the loss of particular points of view.

It seems to me that the pervasive use of the passive voice in which, as Tracy Kidder points out in the quote above, ” the thing done is more important than the doer” has to have an effect on the way people of the time saw the world. In some sense, it may have made it easier for the Buddha to come up with his understanding that it is our actions that are critical in our relationships with other, in the effects we have on those around us, which may have led to his asking himself what it was that caused any given individual to perform this action and not some other — with his answer being that it is our intention that is important. And then there arises the next question: what causes go into the formation of our intentions?

Two of the other three points he brings up as being distinctive in the Pali also support the same possibility:
that the frequent use of the absolutive (“having done x”) and the use of a particular tense called the causative (rather than “he makes x” saying “he causes y to make x”) are also elements in a language that sees a chain of events (“having gone for a walk, and having wandered mindlessly, she got lost”) as a series of causes and effects; and certainly speaking about something happening because one set into motion whatever it took to bring it about would make one pay attention to the same: cause and effect. Prof. Gombrich points out that the causative is logical in a society in which rulers direct those under them to do this or that — which seems a likely reason that the causative became a popular form. But I wonder if its use didn’t have a larger effect.

These are just the idle speculations of a writer who comes to the use of words primarily from a story-teller’s point of view. Because I think of the Buddha as “a character”, and I read the suttas as stories, I spend some time wondering how elements of his life and society affected him — what were the causes that led to the effects we see in his life? So along these lines, it has just seemed to me that how people use language not only conveys information about who they are in their place in society, but about how they think, and that these elements in the language of his day (that are not common in ours) — the use of the passive voice making actions more important than actors, the use of the absolutive describing chains of events leading to outcomes, and the causative tense — may have made him better able to see what he saw.

7 Responses to “The Passive Voice”

  1. Keren Dar (Bernice Bunce) says:

    I speak three very distinct languages. I have found that in each language there are worldviews and way of expression that are unique to each language; along with it goes an “identity” and a be -ing (verb) and Being (noun). These be -ings shape culture, ethics and what I have found, quirky… the humour.
    Thank you for your insights in pattica samupada.
    May you walk in Beauty may you continue to overthink and share these overthinkings :)

  2. star says:

    Thank you for sharing an interest in how language shapes thought. I am hoping you’ve written something somewhere on how be-ing and Being affect humor — I’d love to read it!

  3. tiramit says:

    I’ve been thinking about the passive voice and no-self for a long time and your observations put into words many things I’ve been considering. I wrote a post about it eventually with a pingback to your site. Thank you

  4. […] Bangkok: No taxis available at the airport, and all trains into town are seriously crowded. I am one of a very large number of individuals caught in the rush on a Friday evening. Somebody said later it’s because all the international schools start again on Monday. No other way, it’s decided for me, okay, I accept, I am subject to the system, the public transport system and I have no control over it. I am being ‘taken’, it’s about the process, rather than any particular person controlling the process. I could create a Controller in my imagination like the bosses, the management and blame it all on them/him/her/it, but it’s better to not do that…. There’s not a ‘self’ in the equation – the deed is done but there is no doer, using the Passive Voice language function to express the Buddhist Truth of no-self (anatta), and I came across an interesting post about this the other day [Link to: Just A Little Dust]. […]

  5. Rosana Lucas says:

    I have developed a whole theory of grammar based on Dependent Arising. It is presently in Brazilian Portuguese, my mother tongue, for which the grammatical theory was developed. What you say about the passive voice makes sense, although, for me, this construction would match DA til Clinging. Anyway, stopping short of living the full consequences of birth and aging and death is better than living the full cycle – active voice. Let me know if you would be interested in discussing this model of buddhist grammar further.

  6. star says:

    Sorry for the delay, Rosana, I somehow missed your post. I’d be glad to chat about a grammar based on Dependent Arising. How do we begin?

  7. Rosana Lucas says:

    Thank you for the interest. I have just finished a short article on a basic sentence with verb “to be”. I can translate it into English and send it to you at an appointed email address.

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