One of the more personally enjoyable aspects of language study to me is the way that such studies of words lead to a great many implications that help to explain the differences between cultural mindset. One of the first examples where I realized this was deeply interesting was when I was learning Spanish and I learned that in Spanish, people do not drop things, but instead those things fall. Se cae la cuchara–the spoon falls, I do not drop it. As a clumsy person who is continually dropping or knocking over things and as someone whose views of personal responsibility are rather rigorous, I was deeply intrigued by the implication of this difference. In English, the fact that we drop things means that we are responsible for the damage or breakage that comes as a result of said dropping. The fact that the plate falls is secondary to our responsibility for having not held it properly in our hands. The Spanish, though, eludes this sense of responsibility and focuses on the passive fall of the plate due to gravity and not to whose responsibility it was that the plate did not fall. The lack of one-to-one correspondence in the language hinted at cultural differences concerning responsibility that laid behind the language.
This morning, as I was practicing Portuguese (my apologies, but you are likely to hear a lot of these matters in the near future), I was made aware of another such difference, a distinction that is not made in English but is apparently made in Portuguese that hints at something particularly intriguing in terms of two different conceptions of “we” that we do not tend to distinguish in the English language. The first such way is easy enough to understand. Nos escrevemos um livro means “we write a book,” which is precisely the sort of collaborative effort we can well understand taking part in as individuals. But what are we to make of the second conception of we, when it is labeled as “A gente não bebe cerveja,” or “We don’t drink beer.” A literal translation of “a gente” would be “the people,” which is a fairly typical way that human societies have viewed themselves. If you have read anything about comparative anthropology and the self-identity of ethnic groups throughout history you will find that a great many peoples and tribes and nations called themselves “the people” and called others by various less flattering names, as if they were the only true human beings and everyone else was something less elevated.
To say “a gente” as opposed to “nos” is to make a general statement as opposed to a particular one. We may do things ourselves without seeking to make a larger statement as to our identity group or humanity as a whole without any particular difficulty. If I say regarding someone I know that “we love to read books on military history,” it is not generally dividing humanity into groups by referring to myself as belonging to an identity group that is based on the reading (and presumably the enjoyment) of military history. At least that is not generally my intention unless I happen to be at an alumni event for the university where I graduated with a master’s degree in military history or went to a conference for some military historical society, in which case I would be around a particular kind of people joined by an interest in such matters. It is striking that Portuguese uses “the people” as a stand-in for we, which tends to make identity politics a rather explicit matter of language. The choice to use “nos” or “a gente” would be making the choice between something that I and some other person or people do as being a matter of personal preference or cultural identity.
There are obviously cases where this could be useful. When speaking with someone in Portuguese about religious beliefs, saying something like “A gente não comemos porco” (“we don’t eat pork”) would carry a much more loaded meaning, because it would imply that not eating pork was strongly involved in a group identity that I happened to be a part of. The same would be true for “A gente vamos à igreja no sábado” (we go to church on Saturday), which would again imply that this particular habit is one that forms part of a larger group identity and is not merely a personal inclination. How do we draw the line between that which we do as individuals and that which we do as part of a larger group? This is not always obvious. It is easy to see that different cultural backgrounds would lead one to draw the line differently. This is not too different from the line between indicative and subjunctive moods of verbs in Spanish, where I as an American tend to use the indicative far more and most native Spanish speakers I happen to know use the subjunctive far more, which involves doubt and possibility rather than certainty. Noting those ways in which a given action is part of a group identity can help us distinguish a bit from our own personal behavior and that which we adopt for some sort of social reason. Perhaps I am not alone in finding such a distinction deeply interesting.