Semantic Flavors of "My" in Chinese and English
26 Mar 2007
My end of the term pragmatics/semantics paper looked at the use of the English word “my” in certain constructions and compared it with the corresponding “我的” constructions in Chinese.
When you say “my X” in English, it could actually mean a variety of things, but we generally expect it to mean something like “the X that belongs to me.” Such is the case for “my book,” “my blog,” my hand,” etc. When X is a societal unit or group, however, the semantic relationship is no longer the default. Let’s take a look at these examples:
– my parents
– my family
– my class
– my gym
– my university
– my bank
– my company
– my hometown
– my city
– my government
– my country
So when you say “my parents,” are you expressing that your parents belong to you, or that you belong to your parents? Or is it another relationship altogether?
“My family” brings the point home a little better. While the head of the household might be able to get away with expressing “ownership” over a family, it seems kind of silly for a child to do so. But anyone with a family can say “my family,” even if it clearly does not belong to that person.
“My class” clearly means “the class that I am in” or “the class that I belong to.” If a teacher is saying it, it might have another meaning.
Unless it’s the gym owner talking, we would expect “my gym” to mean “the gym that I go to.” Similarly, “my university,” my bank,” and “my company” are frequently used to mean “the X that I belong to,” where X is an organization. The direction of ownership has reversed. Not only am I not expressing what belongs to me, I am actually expressing what I belong to.
Although “hometown,” “city,” “government,” and “country” are X’s of a somewhat different breed, the same principle is at play. These all work in English.
In Chinese, it’s a different story. I remember clearly the first time I became aware of odd semantic relationships with my/我的 when I first said, “我的银行” to mean “my bank.” I can’t say that in Chinese, because I don’t own the bank. The same thing goes for “我的公司.” You don’t say it if it’s not your own company.
Before we go comparing too much with Chinese, though, we need to get straight the semantic relationships being expressed here. If the “my” is expressing ownership, we could express it with an O. That goes for “my book,” “my blog,” etc. I’m going to extend the meaning to also include leadership roles, as in a teacher saying “my class,” or a branch manager saying “my bank.” We’ll call the first kind of “O” relationship O1 and the second kind O2, just for fun.
But “my” frequently expresses membership or belonging in English, as in “my bank” (i.e. “the bank that I use”), or “my church,” or “my country.” I’ll designate those as M. Here, too, though, there’s a distinction. Sometimes the “membership” is a work relationship. “My company” is not “the company that I use voluntarily,” but “the company that I work for.” Let’s call that relationship M2, while the regular membership relationship is M1.
Whew! OK, all that sorting out was necessary in order to understand clearly what’s going on with Chinese. So is there any overlap, or are the two systems totally different? For the examples above, here’s a rough comparison:
|my parents||O1 / M1||我（的）父母||O1 / M1|
|my family||O1 / M1||我（的）家人||O1 / M1|
|my class||M1 (O2)||我的班||O2|
|my gym||M1 (O2)||我的健身房||O2|
|my bank||M1 (O2)||我的银行||O2|
|my company||M1 (O2)||我的公司||O2|
First let’s look at the overlap. The ones that share an M1 semantic relationship are “my parents,” “my family,” “my hometown,” and “my country.” You might say these are the oldest, the most traditional social relationships. (China has had a long history of government, but the word 政府 in its modern usage is relatively new, imported from Japanese.)
So the question is: what’s the deal with the others? Is this kind of asymmetry just a sort of linguistic drift? Is there a change one way or the other in progress? Is it related to the paradoxical nature of China’s “Communist capitalist” modern society? Well, I don’t pretend to have the answers here. To be honest, I felt that the analysis in my paper was rather shallow, even though I added in the complexity of differences between 我的, 我们的 and 我们 in Chinese. I won’t regurgitate it here in English. Still, even if it’s not an especially interesting comparison, at the very least it’s a subtle usage point of which students of Chinese should be aware.