Fatalism and Lack of Agency in Spanish Language and Culture

As I mentioned in another post, we Americans act like tomorrow is a sure thing. It’s almost as real as the present and for those of us who use like me who the defense of fantasy, it’s probably even more real. But of course the future doesn’t even exist. We are treating something as real that’s not even there.

Other cultures like the Arabs or the Spanish-speaking countries engage in regular use of a phrase called ojala que.. which means “God willing that…” they put this phrase in front of all sorts of discussions about the future. I mentioned the Arabs and this was actually, as one might guess, a borrowing from Arabic and possibly from Arabic culture too. The Arabs after all do tell to leave it all up to God.

There’s something to be said for that. We even have a phrase in English for when someone is stuck in an impossible mind-rut, “Let go and let God…(take over and do it himself).” This is also similar to the Spanish language fatalistic denial of agency that I will get to in a bit.

Ojala que manana seria un mejor dia means “God willing, tomorrow will be a better day.”

The future is completely uncertain and not only that, for a lot of us, it won’t even exist at all even when it happens because we’ll be dead by then, so for us it never happened. The world could blow up tomorrow. Then what of the future, Mr. Can-do American Boosterist? It won’t exist for any of us because we will all be dead.

I’m still not sure how the constant use of the subjective in the Spanish language plays into this, but I suspect it’s part of this fatalistic worldview. Yes the French language uses the subjunctive too, and I don’t know if they are as fatalistic as the French or even if any language that uses a subjunctive a lot develops fatalism as a result or if a fatalistic culture gives way to frequent use of the subjunctive. But I’m getting all Sapir-Whorfian here, excuse me.

We actually have a subjuctive in English in the form of the verb to be: were.

As it were, the Queen ended up ruling all of her Kingdom

If I were king, I would clone 10 copies of Selena Gomez to be my concubines, and I would live happily ever after or until my Viagra supply ran out, whichever came first.

As you can see, we barely use it as we are anything but a fatalistic culture and in fact we have contempt for such cultures and refer to them as lazy and irresponsible. We are a “Carpe diem!” society after all.  You don’t sit around and wait for God or the government to get around to doing something, you get off your lazy ass and do it yourself, slacker!

But enough about us. Back to our relaxed cousins to the south. Spanish tends to use the subjunctive far more than it ought to. They literally sprinkle it all over the place. The subjunctive in any language means “maybe, hypothetically, possibly, etc.” and the excessive use of it in Spanish implies to me that something like Ojala que is going on. Spanish speaking Catholic cultures do tend to be pretty fatalistic, and Catholicism, perhaps the ultimate fatalistic religion, surely plays no small part in that.

In another possible element of fatalism or “leaving things up to God,” the Spanish language offers speakers a way out of a lot of mistakes by saying the person who failed in whatever they failed in lacked agency at the time, hence their failure was an act of God and therefore not their fault.

I don’t “fall down,” in Spanish, instead Se me cayo or “It fell down itself to me.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have God fall my sorry ass down than be on the hook for doing it to my own self.

I don’t forget anything of course, instead Se me olvido or “It forgot itself to me.”

I didn’t do it, the falling and forgetting did it to me, dammit! It’s not my fault! I was just an innocent victim! Quit picking on me!

I suppose you could say this makes Spanish speakers irresponsible, but it doesn’t seem to have that effect. Instead it seems to have a “don’t sweat the small stuff” effect, and indeed they do seem to take it pretty easy, maybe even too easy with all those siestas and always showing up an hour late to anything.

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3 thoughts on “Fatalism and Lack of Agency in Spanish Language and Culture”

  1. I read speculation somewhere that English speakers have a strong predisposition to mind-body dualism because where many languages would say “the [body part]”, English says “my [body part]”. I unfortunately can’t recall the entire argument, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.

    (This is the guy you did a session with yesterday).

    1. Can you explain what mind-body dualism is and how English speakers might be referring to mind-body dualism by saying “my arm” as opposed to “the arm?” You mean the mind is separate from the body and it is in possession of the arm as if it were in possession of an object?

  2. The correct phrases are “se me cayo” and “se me olvido.” The “lo” is not necessary. Spanish has a more complicated voice structure than English with its reflexive “middle” voice. Those example are morphologically active, semantically passive and syntactically reflexive!

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