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When an Englishman wants to refer to parts of the body or to objects of personal use, he will use a possessive adjective. Examples:

  • My head aches.
  • I dropped my glasses.

In the Romance languages, possessive adjectives are not used in these cases. In Spanish, the expression is "Me duele la cabeza" ("The head aches to me"). Or, "Se me cayeron los anteojos" ("The glasses dropped themselves to me"). A reflexive pronoun and a definite article replace the use of the possessive adjective. The same, I think, can be said about French or Italian.

Why this heavy use of possessive adjectives in English? Was it already present in the Proto-Germanic language?

  • I think this would be an excellent question for our sister site, linguistics.stackexchange.com. – rajah9 Sep 22 '13 at 12:43
  • In Me duele la cabeza, isn't me a personal pronoun? – Talia Ford Sep 22 '13 at 13:42
  • In Me duele la cabeza, me is an indirect object pronoun. – Talia Ford Sep 22 '13 at 13:55
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The current terminology for words like my is ‘possessive determiner’, rather than ‘possessive adjective’.

I can’t speak for Spanish, but the French possessive determiners (mon, ma, mes, ton, ta, tes, son, sa, ses, notre, nos, votre, vos, leur, leurs) are frequently used. Reflexive constructions like Me duele la cabeza are also found in French, but that is really rather incidental to the use of possessive determiners. Se me cayeron los anteojos is presumably a passive construction, but I’m not sure it has much bearing on the use of possessive determiners either.

Old English had a set of possessive determiners in the first, second and third persons, and singular, dual and plural numbers, and the third person form was, additionally, inflected for the gender (masculine, feminine or neuter).

Romance languages use more impersonal constructions than English because Latin also did so, but that is really a separate issue from the use of possessive determiners.

  • Italian doesn't have possessive determiners (it has possessive adjectives), and I don't think Latin did either. This may account for the prevalence of expressions that don't use possessive determiners in the Romance languages (like French and Spanish) that have acquired them ... they may have persisted from the days when there weren't any. – Peter Shor Sep 22 '13 at 13:15
  • I don't know Italian, but the Latin equivalents, in the masculine nominative singular, are: meus, tuus, suus, noster, vester. The only reason there might be for calling them adjectives rather than determiners is that they decline like adjectives. – Barrie England Sep 22 '13 at 14:50
  • Hi Barrie -- in Italian, they are genuine adjectives, so e.g. you use them to say the equivalent of "the my jumper", "a his house". – Neil Coffey Sep 22 '13 at 16:01
  • Various languages including French and Spanish actually have both possessive determiners and possessive adjectives, e.g. French possesive determiners are "mon", "son" etc; possessive adjectives are "mien", "sien" etc. – Neil Coffey Sep 22 '13 at 16:02
  • Mien and so on, preceded by le, la or les are possessive pronouns. – Barrie England Sep 22 '13 at 16:19
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Your observation of the reflexive might actually be use of Middle Voice. Your body part is taking on a role in the sentence that is neither active nor passive.

In French (and I would also assume in Spanish), there are two forms of the verb "to break."

Je casse ma bicyclette. ("I break my bicycle.")

Je se casse ma jambe. ("I break my leg," Literally I my-leg-breaks-itself)

And when I shave, the one being shaved is between active and passive.

Je me rase. ("I shave," Literally I shave myself)

(And my apologies to French speakers everywhere when I break their language.)

Note the use of the middle voice ("se casse") when I break my leg. Middle voice is used because the breaking is between me actively breaking my leg and my leg having passively been broken.

You may be seeing this use of the reflexive / middle voice in romance languages because English does not have a middle voice.

  • The difference that the poster is describing isn't really to do with the middle voice as such, though, just the use of the determiner, e.g. English "in my throat" vs French "dans la gorge". – Neil Coffey Sep 22 '13 at 15:58
  • Good point, @NeilCoffey. I was considering the OP's "A reflexive pronoun and a definite article replace the use of the possessive adjective." In the "Se me cayeron," the "se" is perhaps less the glasses "dropping themselves" and more a middle-voice marker (the glasses falling, neither active (dropping themselves) nor passive (being pushed by an agent)). – rajah9 Sep 22 '13 at 17:20
  • Ah OK -- yes, that's incidentally true: there's really no sense that "se cayó" means "se cayó a sí mismo", and when somebody says "se rompió el vaso" rather than "rompí el vaso", they're deliberately 'removing agency'. Just that that's not primarily what this question is about :) – Neil Coffey Sep 22 '13 at 17:55

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