My Life in Peru

An Expat Mom Shares Her Experiences with Peruvian Life, Travel and Food

Language in the Bi-Cultural Household

Posted on | February 21, 2012 | 15 Comments

Hey! I’ve been terrible about posting lately! I miss you guys, but I’ve been SO busy with a heavy work load plus the kids out of school, I’ve barely  had time to think.  Hope you enjoy this funny guest post!

Language in the bi-cultural household: passival…. the passive-aggressive of Spanish
By Rick Vecchio

After 15 years as an expat American living in Peru, I have learned that the time-space continuum can be stretched by language into a whole new dimension.

At first, it was jarring. Early on in the Andes, I discovered that if the diminutive was uttered, I was being presented with irony.

 I remember being told the village we were hiking to was, “oh, just a wee-ways away” (ah, cerquita, nomas). Translation: We had another three miles to walk.

As time has gone by, I’ve learned to embrace this world view, live a more laid back lifestyle and to take life as it comes.

There is one exception though; One common twist of language that still drives me nuts.

In Spanish, how would one say, “I dropped the dish and it broke”?

Se me cayó el plato de mis manos y se rompió.

However, the literal translation of that statement back into English would be:

“The dish fell from my hands and broke itself.” 

What happened to the “I” in that statement? It wasn’t me who dropped the dish, so much as the dish leaping out of my hands and breaking itself.

It is as a parent that I have grappled with this the hardest, not only on a grammatical level, but also on a cognitive one.

How do you convey a sense of personal accountability when faced with a language that imbues inanimate objects with inherent willfulness?

Truth be told, I have been known in my household to go off the deep end with my kids when childish disaster strikes and no one is willing to claim responsibility.

“Who broke the lamp!” I ask.

The answer comes almost in unison: “Not me…” “It wasn’t me…” “No fuí yo, daddy…”

“So no one did this?” I ask with incredulity. “The lamp just broke itself?”



“Si, daddy… se rompió!


I recently a gained some insight, though, when I heard the following segment by Mike Vuolo on NPR (url:

Turns out Spanish is not the only culprit. We once had a grammatical equivalent in English:

“MIKE VUOLO: That’s right. Whatever you’re doing is in progress, so to speak. Now, up until around the mid-1800s or so there was another construction that was similar to the progressive, but it was in a kind of passive voice. So you might say, the house is building, meaning the house is in some unfinished state of builded-ness. The refreshments were preparing. This was called the passival.
BOB GARFIELD:  It imputes onto inanimate objects a kind of action.
MIKE VUOLO: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s weird.
MIKE VUOLO:  Yeah, weird, though you’ve probably come across the passival without even realizing it. In fact, Jane Austin used it quite a bit. In her very first novel, Northanger Abbey, she writes, “The clock struck ten while the trunks were carrying down.” In Little Dorrit Charles Dickens writes, “The street lamps were lighting.”

So, dishes flew out of our hands and broke themselves in archaic English. That’s some comfort.

♬ ♫ ♩Seven plates a-fly’n, six lamps a-breaking, five golden rings… ♪ ♫ ♩ ♬


Rick is the owner and manager of Fertur Peru Travel – Over the last 17 years, Fertur Peru Travel has built a reputation for unsurpassed personal attention, so that visitors can go home counting Peru as the greatest and most memorable travel experience possible. If you plan on traveling in Peru, check out some of the amazing tours they offer.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


15 Responses to “Language in the Bi-Cultural Household”

  1. Teresa Alva
    February 23rd, 2012 @ 14:45

    I enjoyed this blog. As a native English speaker learning Spanish, my actions are always intentional – I INTENTIONALY forget to call my mother all the time! Shame on me!!

  2. Liz
    February 23rd, 2012 @ 23:36

    But saying “se me cayó el plato” is different from saying “se cayó el plato”. in the first you are linking yourself to the plate breaking with the “me”, in the second you are just saying that it broke, not my fault.

  3. isabella057
    February 28th, 2012 @ 10:03

    I’m happy to read this post and to hear from you too. Sometimes other language have different meaning in English language, that makes funny sometimes!

  4. Kelly
    February 28th, 2012 @ 12:54

    That’s true, Liz – but the confusion for English speakers comes with “cayo” = it still means the dish itself fell. There’s a difference between that and the way you’d say it in English – “I dropped the plate” – in other words, it was my action specifically that caused the plate to break.

    In Spanish, it sounds more like ” I was holding the plate, and it fell – it wasn’t anything I did wrong”

    We aren’t trying to say there’s anything wrong with Spanish here, just pointing out one of the foibles that can get to native English speakers. :)

  5. Luttchie
    February 28th, 2012 @ 19:29

    I love reading the blog here…Thanks a lot for the awesome post you have shared with us!

  6. Devhonn
    February 29th, 2012 @ 19:39

    Thanks a lot for sharing because I know this is very inspirational and interesting to read too…

  7. Gary
    March 5th, 2012 @ 05:41

    The way I see it, that makes the study of language as well as translation very interesting. There’s a lot of differences in languages that we cannot make a perfect verbatim translation of paragraphs, much more in sentences.

  8. Kelly
    March 5th, 2012 @ 15:50

    I completely agree – there are a lot of things that simply get “lost in translation”, as they say.

  9. Cat
    March 5th, 2012 @ 17:50

    I’ve heard people use “Dejé caer el plato.” which takes a bit more more responsibility.

  10. Theriz26
    March 5th, 2012 @ 21:55

    Hi Kelly! you did a great job on this blog! and i agree with you that there are lots of things that simply get lost in translating different language. Thanks for the very interesting post that you shared with us here and i’m so excited to read more from you.
    Theriz26´s last blog post ..Happy New Year To All Of You And Hope You Like The Aquarium Fish Photos Here …

  11. Dee
    April 13th, 2012 @ 22:26

    Hi Kelly,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. You always have something interesting to say! I have to disagree with some of the statements made in the guest post. I wanted to offer a little insight. My studies are in Linguistics and I was raised a simultaneous bilingual in English and Spanish since birth. The original sentence on which the post was based on was mistranslated in the first place. The original sentence in English read “I dropped the dish and it broke”. The translation for the main verb “to drop” was given as “caer”. That would be the translation for “fall”. To be equivalent in English, the original sentence would have to have used the translation for “drop” which would be closer to “botar, tirar, etc.” in Spanish. Or, the English sentence would’ve had to have read something along the lines of “The dish fell and it broke” thereby assigning it the same agentive ambiguity as in the Spanish translation (the verb “fall” is unaccusative- i.e. the subject is not the agent of the verb.) If you use the equivalent verb in the Spanish translation then it no longer seems as if Spanish has an “it’s not my fault” clause written into its syntax ;-). Also, as an aside the “se me cayo” does assign an agent, “Yo”. Reflexives usually answer the “who” question. “se me cayo” (a quien se le cayo?) “a mi”.



  12. Kelly
    April 14th, 2012 @ 01:09

    That might be true – except that (at least in Peru) people don’t use an equivalent for “to drop” – they use “caer”. They may say “I let the plate fall”, although I usually hear simply “the plate fell” with no connection to the person at all. I’ve never heard anyone use botar or tirar in this situation, except perhaps that “ahora puedes botar el plato en la basura!” 😉

  13. Dee
    April 14th, 2012 @ 04:41

    Local usage of a language is very interesting. I don’t doubt that word (or verb) choice could be motivated by something like wanting to avoid placing blame on oneself whether consciously or subconsciously (especially when children are asked “who broke the lamp?”) 😀 I merely disagreed with the observation that it was a property of the Spanish language in general (as opposed to Peruvian Spanish, or Limeno Spanish).

    I grew up in Lima and I don’t recall people predominantly using “se cayó” instead of “se me cayó” but then again, I have lived outside Peru for just over two decades and things are constantly changing, especially in terms of linguistic usage!


  14. Eli
    June 16th, 2012 @ 14:39

    That is a really interesting example about plates LOL.I think that we dont take responsability when we dont do that intencionally (break a plate).Since I am native spanish speaker , I wonder who takes responsibility(from the english point of view language) when an earthquake shakes the house, the plates , so they break…

  15. Kelly
    June 16th, 2012 @ 15:50

    In that case, yeah, we would say the plates fell. “Did you feel that earthquake? It made some plates fall down in my house!” or “That earthquake was so strong, the plates were falling off the shelves.”

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

    Sign Up for Our Newsletter


    We respect your email privacy

    Email Marketing by AWeber



    I got tired of life happening while I made other plans, so I quit my job and came to Peru. I live here with my Peruvian husband, two sons, three dogs and various other family members, depending on the weather.

    Expat Blogs

    Watch LIVE TV from the US for Free!

Expat Women - Helping Women Living Overseas
Expat Women Blog Directory is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to
Get Adobe Flash player