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» Wednesday Linguistics: Me and Mine


Wednesday Linguistics: Me and Mine

2006-05-31 @ 7:16

“The president took far too seriously McClellan’s constant references to ‘my army.’”

Ah, possessives. But they’re not really that, now are they? We call “My, your, our” possessives, but that is a misnomer; actually reductive, in that it only refers to one of their uses. When I say “my brother,” I by no means mean that I possess him. One way to see that various uses of these determiners is to look at the ambiguity of “my picture;” out of context, one can’t really know if I’m talking about a picture of me, the picture I’m holding (as oppose to that one someone else is), the one I own, or the one I took.

So what do we have here? Three words or just one with three meanings (see as “the one I hold” and “the one I own” are roughly similar)? With a series of words (”my, your, his, her, …) behaving the same way, it’s a good bet that there’s only one word. But how many meanings? Let’s look at what we’ve got:

  1. the picture of me
  2. the picture I hold or own
  3. the picture I took, the picture from me

In (3), I am the originator of the picture; in (2) I am the possessor; in (1) I am the subject. In a sense, we can say that, in (1) and (3), the picture comes from me, either as subject or creator. As for (2), it’s not actually coming, or going, anywhere, but is at me. Which, punctually, can be argued to be the same thing. (All three cases are actually, in inflectional languages like German or Latin, what is called a genitive case.) There’s always the notion of origins.

But what of my brother? He’s not coming from me (see, especially, that I’m the youngest of the family). But he’s a brother with regard to me; by virtue of me. The same with “my best friend,” I do in no way own her, but, here again, she is a “best friend” through me, by virtue of me (and I one through her).

One way to say it would be, “defined with regard to me.” McClellan, when he was Lincoln’s General-in-chief, could say “my army” and not mean “the one I own,” but rather “the one where I’m the reference point” (which, as the President happens to be the Commander-in-chief, would still be a faux pas). And one can say “my husband” with out implying ownership, but “not any husband, but the one defined with regard to me.”

I realize that this “defined with regard to me” is a bit ill-stated, but that is the way with meanings, they’re sometimes hard to pinpoint, often hard to express other than by the word itself.

What do you think?