LINGUIST List 6.701

Sat 20 May 1995

Disc: Possessives

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  1. benji wald, genius of English

Message 1: genius of English

Date: Tue, 09 May 95 20:11 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: genius of English

I'd like to make some comments that proceed from Wiedrick's summary
(LINGUIST List: Vol-6-596. Sat 22 Apr 1995.) of the English
possessive construction "a friend of John's".

To begin with, when they used to talk about the "genius" of a language,
meaning what makes a language sui generis, I think that absolutely and
positively the behavior, or misbehavior, of the genitive 's is the most
distinctive thing about English. I mean what other language has things
like "the girl I'm thinking of'S boyfriend"? I like to use this as
an example of the inflection of prepositions in English -- I'm sure no one
would disagree with me, right?

The deepest issue I can think of about 'S is its relation (or lack
thereof) to functional arguments about syntactic structure.
'S gives English speakers a chance to develop its functional potential to
make distinctions, and English speakers refuse the gift.

For example, everyone complains about irregular plurals in English
(waste of brain storage space, misses generalisations, etc etc),
but when it comes to "the men's room", "the women's games" or
"a children's story" they don't complain. However, "they" won't let us
do "the guys'es room", "the ladies'es games" (yeah, but if you say
it...) or "a kids'es story", or if we do, they won't let us
spell it like that. (Sorry, this is all *almost* irrelevant to
the main point).

Now I read in Wiedrick's summary something about "a friend of John's's"??
What's that? Look at the chance we're blowing.
 a friend of mine's wife vs. a friend of my wife('s)

So we have a chance to distinguish
 a friend of John's's wife from a friend of John's wife

but we're gonna mess it up, because we don't give a damn about function,
we're form addicts. (Either we like sticking 'S wherever we can, whatever
"can" means in this context, or we can't help it, like something we stepped
in and won't scrape off on the curb. Actually, the best explanation I've
heard so far came from a non-linguist. "What else can we do
with it? We can't pronounce it by itself." Deep, eh?)

Actually I'll back up a little.
 a friend of John's wife's
is not such a great gift, since it already has the ambiguity in:
She's a friend of John's wife's vs. That purse is a friend of John's wife's
 She's a friend of John's wife's sister('s)
and, as we all know,
 a friend of John's wife
doesn't give us an out, because it is also ambiguous =
 one of John's friends'(??es') wife OR one of John's wife's friends

Can we do pauses to disambiguate here?

a friend (INHALE) of John's wife =? one of John's wife's friends
a friend of John's (INHALE) wife =?? one of John's friends' wife

/and I'm starting to dislike the last example on the right./

I don't think position of INHALE really helps, well, maybe if you know
whether I'm asthmatic or not (is that how you spell it in English?)

Also note in passing that another irregular plural can take a bow for doing
something useful,

one of John's wife's friends VS. one of John's wives'(??es) friends

cntr. one of John's significant other's(/others'(??es') friends

(And once again: Yeah, but if you SAY it...)

But then again, what's the difference between:
 one of John's friends' (...) wife AND one of John's friends' wives

(I mean given current Anglophonic customs), except that we can
 FORMALLY reduce the latter to
 one of the wives
BUT NOT the former to
 one of the wife
/ That's why I don't like "one of John's friends' wife"/

Well, at least we still have the distinction with pronouns, i.e.,
 a friend of mine's wife vs. a friend of my wife's
 your(?')s(?') your
 his...?'s... his
 her...s.... *her
 *its...?'s.... *its
 our...s... *our
 their...s..... *their

(hmm, there's something funny about the * examples. I can't quite put
my finger on what. Is it pragmatics?)

Do you spell it "a friend of yours' wife", etc.? "a friend of his' wife"??
I think even orthography has not kept up with the "his" one.

So, with all due respect to the fascinating facts revealed in
Wiedrick's summary, I still don't understand what's going on in
English with 's.

I think they stopped talking about the "genius" of the language, because,
sophisticated as that Latinate word sounds, it was a hedge admitting
inability to understand the logic of whatever that language's peculiarity
seemed to be. We run-of-the-millers don't understand the inner
workings of geniuses (geniera?) So if 'S is not to be called
the genius of English, what is the logic underlying what we do
with 'S in the constructions above, and elsewhere in this rather
bizarre language.? Somebody help me.
 Signed, flustered linguist
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