Blargh Blog

Friday, September 03, 2004

Ask a linguist

Did I contradict myself in my last post? I came out against slavery, and yet I spoke of "my readers". These readers are presumably people, and wasn't I claiming that I owned them? Because "my" means ownership, right? And owning people means slavery, right?

Words like "my" are called possessives and we use them to talk about things we own, like "my cup", "my car", and "my pet". But we also say things like "my body", "my feelings", "my soul", "my mind", and "my identity". Are we to believe that there is some "me" that is distinct from each of these things and owns them? Then we go on to say "my team", "my country", and "my religion". We sure don't act like these things belong to us - if anything, we belong to them. And we continue - "my father", "my favorite song", "my first trip to a baseball game". There's no ownership implied there, just some kind association, with the precise type of association evident only because of our background knowledge (how are people usually related to religions?). The "my" just lets people know that we're talking about "the cup that is related to me", "the mind that is related to me", "the country that is related to me", or "the readers that are related to me" - we have to use what we know to fill in the blanks about the nature of the relationship. Sometimes, the nature of the association is ambiguous without further context, as with "my team" (am I a player, fan, coach, fantasy league owner, ... ?).

The properties that are mentioned in the "my" statement can help indicate the nature of the relationship between me and the thing. So, he's a doctor and a father, but he's my father (not my doctor) because he's related to me with respect to his fathering but not with respect to his doctoring. And that trip to a baseball game is related to me with respect to it being a "first trip". "My" even gets extended beyond possession when it is used with things that are owned. I can talk about where "my car" is parked even if I've just borrowed the car from a friend. And it's perfectly natural for me to say "she sure cleaned her plate" when she finished all the food on the plate that her host served to her. If you told me "no, that's the host's plate - she was just using it" I would probably laugh at you.

Thus, I'd like to take this opportunity to reitirate to you, my reader, my opposition to slavery and to claim that I have been faithful to that ideal.

Have the so-called possessives always been this open-ended as to the nature of the association that they imply? Or did they start out as a way of indicating actual possession, and expand in meaning over time? That's the question that I'm asking of any linguists out there. I'd also be interested in finding out if bonified linguists are largely in agreement with my analysis of the word "my".


At September 04, 2004 10:52 PM, Blogger Neal said...

I just came over to see your generalization of Glen's tp formula, and then scrolled down to this posting. What a coincidence you should be talking about the different kinds of possessives, because I was just about to do a post on that very subject on my own blog ( Look for it tomorrow. A preview, though, in answer to your question: The possessives of which you speak are often known as "relational possessives," and Chris Barker at UCSD did his dissertation on them. It's quite readable--at least the parts I remember.


Post a Comment

<< Home