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:

English rel Chinese rel
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 university M1 我的大学
my bank M1 (O2) 我的银行 O2
my company M1 (O2) 我的公司 O2
my hometown M1 我的家乡 M1
my city M1 我的城市
my government M1 我的政府
my country M1 我的国家 M1

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.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I think the best way to look at the second “my” in english is to think of it repesenting a ‘connection to’ rather than an ‘ownership of’. If you think of it in those terms then for example “My host country” or even “My self” makes sense.

  2. Interesting!

    My first glance at the Chinese “Pronoun+的” is that, would it be possible that the default is “ownership”, the possessive mode? (I won’t feel bad saying 我(的)父母 can have possessive meaning. After all, they are “my” parents not somebody else’s, and they are “my” responsibility, in my Chinese concept of family). Therefore, in order to mean “my gym-M”, “my bank-M”, “my university-M” you will have the subject-predicate structure like “我去的健身房”, “我存錢的銀行”, “我念的大學”, etc. Perhaps you as a citizen are the owner of a country or government (supposedly) but you can’t possibly own it by yourself, then you use a collective possession like “我們的” (我們的國家,我們的政府,我們(的)班…).

    The thing is, it’s possible to use “我的” in situations where there’s no where for you to have ownership other than membership. In that case I would argue for the context and the ideology that “我的-ownership” is trying to convey. Perhaps it’s a perspective taken as opposed to “your”(and others)? My first guess is when using “我的” in these membership cases, there’s already an addressee, “你” or “你們” present in the discourse. My second guess is the advertisement marketing manipulations-giving consumers a delusion that they are the owner of the service/product which they don’t actually possess. Anyways, I don’t have any data to support neither of them. These are just my guesses.

    But I will be interested to see how “我的國家”, “我的政府”…compared to “我們的國家”, “我們的政府” are distributed in some corpus data, and under what context, for what purposes, etc.. It might be fun also to compare that with “my…” occurrence in English.

  3. […] been digging on my Communications 202 class this semester and I was also inspired by a post over at Sinosplice which got me […]

  4. Great post John. I’m a little confused though about one thing. You mention Chinese don’t use 我的 when referring to things like banks or gyms. Are you referring only to 我的 here or also including other informal possessive forms such as 我们? One spot where I notice Chinese use a possessive to indicate belonging to rather than ownership (where English wouldn’t) is in regards to countries. (i.e. 我们中国有没有你们美国那么好?). I found this a little strange at first, but now find myself saying it as well whenever I am comparing our America to their China.

  5. Is it related to the paradoxical nature of China’s “Communist capitalist” modern society?

    Whenever you find yourself asking this question, a good way to find the answer is to ask “what is the situation like in Taiwan?”. In this case, I think the language is the same in both mainland China and in Taiwan, so you can rule out the influence of communism.

  6. John… you ever had anyone tell you that you’re debating semantics … and hold a straight face. Truly interesting stuff, but I can’t imagine spending my days doing it… you’re a unique guy.

  7. Ben Ross,

    I was referring only to 我的. I mentioned at the end of my entry:

    …I added in the complexity of differences between 我的, 我们的 and 我们 in Chinese.

    When you add 我们的 and 我们 it gets really complex really fast. Not really something I felt like going into on my blog.

  8. Ironfront,

    OK, good point. So maybe replace “Communist” with “oppressive regime”? 🙂

  9. Ryan,

    Don’t get me wrong — I don’t plan to make a living out of this kind of stuff. But it’s interesting to consider every now and then.

    Plus, in this case, I had to write about something for my term paper…

  10. Um, if you are really interested in finding out the semantic differences between the possessives in English and Chinese, you could download some of the publicly available parallel corpora used by computational linguists to train automatic machine translation tools. With some pre-processing, you could align the possessives in both languages and see how they match up, and if you could somehow show that the differences in the use of possessives are related to the differences in the respective cultures, you might be able to get a good conference paper out of it which could be useful for your masters degree.

  11. John,
    What you describe here exists in all western language I know because they are flexibles. Some incorrect usage of the language become correct if it’s widely used. If you look closer at old English texts the possessive only meant possession. In western language the sense is linked with the usage of the People .
    But chinese is just less flexible and don’t allow this sort of usage even after centuries of usage. Because in a Confucian society misuse of the language is strictly limited and the common People can’t change any sense of it.

  12. […] Sinosplice John has a post up looking at the differences in usage between English ‘my’ and Chinese ‘我的’. In my current frazzled, pre-caffeinated state I have nothing to say about the post, I might have another look at it later when I’m feeling a little more human, but those of you who are interested should go have a look. Posted by wangbo Filed in Chinese study […]

  13. 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.

    I’m not sure I agree. I hear people use these constructions frequently, and no, they do not own the company or the bank in question.

  14. How can we translate “我的妈!” into english?

  15. I’d be interested where you got the original data. I just checked with a native speaker and she said you couldn’t say “wo de yinhang” M1, but you could say “wo de daxue” or “wo de chengshi” with M1 meaning. If this has changed or if there is variation, that is really interesting too.

  16. Another interesting comparison/contrast with the Korean use of the word “we” (uri). Koreans use it to designate membership, just like Chinese use of the word “我” and use “my” for ownership although “uri” can be used to denote group ownership of a house, for example. “Uri” is a loaded word with strong connotations in Korean society, which is very group-oriented, and everyone is either an insider/member of the group or an outsider/member of another group.

    Koreans colloquially call their language “uri mal” (our language), their country “uri nara” (our country), their mothers and fathers “uri omoni” “uri aboji” and even their spouses “uri nampyon” and “uri wife.” Since the use of “my” implies ownership, “our husband” and “our wife” make more sense as “uri” communicates the membership of the spouse within the family. University media call their own campus “uri daehakyo” (our university). When reporting on bilaterial or multilaterial issues, the media commonly refers to Korean government agencies and delegations as “uri chuk” and “uri pyon” (our side).

  17. I believe I have heard Chinese people saying 我父母 before now….

    Anybody else heard this or am I lying to myself?

  18. ash:

    Yes “我父母” is perfectly fine, it’s a bit formal though. Normally we say “我爸妈” in conversations. For example, “我爸妈现在住在北京”, “我爸妈一般5点下班”.

    John,

    Now I’ve had time to think about it, it’s rare for native speakers of Chinese to say “我的银行”, I probably wouldn’t say it unless I owned the bank. Normally I’d use “我的那个银行”, or “我那个银行”, or “我那银行” (in decreasing order of formality) in conversations about banks.

  19. PS, Thanks for that.

    what about newspaper headlines that say 我国……

    I guess that would be considered formal as well.

  20. ash:

    父母 is formal, 爸妈 is informal. 国 is formal, I cannot think of an informal alternative just yet.

    pepe:

    “我的妈!” — “Holy mother of god!”

  21. I am Chinese. “我父母”is not correct in grammer. But we always use it in oral Chinese.

  22. ps,

    Sorry, not that interested… 🙂

  23. laska,

    I’d be interested where you got the original data.

    It was an informal poll of a variety of native speakers, young and old, various regions of China.

    Yes, there was a little bit of variation. No, that table I put up is not absolute.

  24. John:

    I thought so, it’d be a lot of work, especially if you don’t have any computing background, and in the end you might not get any interesting results to report anyway …

  25. I think I’m gonna go with Ken’s ‘listen to the music’ and a feeeeel for the language. 🙂 Interesting though, I’m gonna pay attention more to it in conversations…I’ll try saying 我的银行· a few times. Maybe somebody will deposit their money with me.

  26. my God

  27. I don’t know how much you were simplifying for the blog post, but I think you missed out quite an important distinct class of “my+noun”s.
    A word like “brother” (slang meanings aside) or friend can only be used with a possessive unless the context is very very clear (or if its in the plural…but I think the argument still stands). In cases like this, the noun is a relationship type noun, and the pronoun/possessive serves to indicate what that relationship is oriented towards. I think this has a fairly good correspondence with cases in Chinese where you drop the 的, but it’s not 100%.

  28. I don’t even know,fellow!) continued to write in the same vein, it is interesting people!

  29. A couple of years ago I heard the head of the Chinese Language Program at an American university remark that some of the instructors in the department were starting to use possessives in an unnatural way. Apparently their Chinese was suffering under their students’ influence. The example he cited was: 他骑他的自行车上班。

    Funny, you know how the characters in Jane Austen always seem to use the singular possessive when talking about their parents to their siblings? It sounds so peculiar now.

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