If our mother tongue does not actually restrict what we're able to think, as was the fashionable belief for a time in the last century, it does at least affect the sort of thing we're forced to practice thinking about daily, and therefore the sort of thing we learn to think about with ease and precision. Two articles on this subject appeared recently in the Big Apple's sister publications. A NY Times article pointed out that
if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.A similar Wall Street Journal article addressed the need in some languages to give more attention to tense and gender than ordinarily is required in English:
Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin.
Take "Humpty Dumpty sat on a..." Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say "sat" rather than "sit." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) change the verb to mark tense.Both articles noted that many languages lack a purely personal system of spatial references like "left," "right," "front," or "back," requiring the speaker instead to specify the directions of the compass even for immediately personal issues like which leg has the insect on it at the present moment. Speakers of these languages learn as very young children to keep track of the compass directions, to the point of having what seems a nearly supernatural ability to point to due north even after being spun around blindfolded. Anecdotes about bad drivers notwithstanding, this apparently is a skill within the grasp of all ordinary specimens of homo sapiens, but it is not one that comes naturally to most of us unless we are constantly drilled from early childhood.
In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.
In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you'd use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you'd use a different form.
So all that stylebook advice about avoiding the passive voice is important philosophically as well as grammatically: it gives us practice thinking about whether we can or cannot identify the cause for an event.