Friday, March 18, 2005

A cultural question

I haven't had much to say for this blog (and I still don't) but I do have a PRESSING question I want to present to our readers:
One of the first words we English speakers use (generally) as children is "mine" - a thing which I find truly fascinating. Do you think this is true for other cultures? And for the Romans? And if so (and here is where I am really puzzled), which gender do you think they would use first?
thanks for any input you might have.


Tully said...

A boy would say meus, a girl mea.

caelestis said...

I always thought one of the first words a child would learn would be 'no' (negative) or 'don't' (prohibitive).

dennis said...

Tully's mistake (and a common one that I'm sure we've all made) is in giving the possessive adjective the gender of the speaker when it should agree in gender with that which it's modifying.

Forgetting concerns about childhood language acquisition (remember that kids who speak English don't internalize inflectional forms of pronouns for some time), the neuter forms meum or mea (pl.) may be better choices, unless the kid were at least fully aware of gender distinctions.

But I have a hunch it would have been the the genitive of ego (which has no inherent gender): mei!

Coke said...

Dennis, where can I get information about about childhood language acquisition? I am interested in their awareness of inflection and how this develops.

I think I lean to the neuter singular. No idea why. I'll keep thinking about it.

And I am curious - what makes you think they would be using MEI? Would they hear adults using MEI for possession (some colloquial expression not appearing in written texts)? I think I could buy that. MEI sounds a lot easier to use on the street than the adjective. Or would they be able to hear the genitive's 'possessive atmosphere' used with other nouns and make the connection of their own accord?

eric said...

i'd like to put in a vote for the dative of possession mihi because of its common use with that verb of all verbs, esse.

or that's what i would've thought till i checked allen and greenough 373: 'The Genitive or a Possessive with esse emphasizes the possessor; the Dative, the fact of possession: as,--liber est meus, the book is MINE (and no one's else); est mihi liber, I HAVE a book (among other things).'

eric said...

and the former ('MINE') seems to be more what we're going for here.

dennis said...


Check out this bibliography on David Crystal's site:

If you listen to the way most people talk to children you sense a definite pattern of ungrammaticality that paradoxically enforces grammar over time. A mother might say, 'him's a good boy, isn't him? Is that him's favorite toy?'

Personally it creeps me out, but it seems to work.

eric said...

one more thing coke--

you might have been thinking of this already, but for augustine's take on the selfishness of infants, see confessions 1.6.7-1.7.12. latin text available here:

english translation available here: