Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The grammar of talking to yourself

In the Dark Ages, too, linguists sometimes got a little worked up over theoretical differences (if a work of fiction is to be believed):
"Those were times when, to forget an evil world, grammarians took pleasure in abstruse questions. I was told that in that period, for fifteen days and fifteen nights, the rhetoricians Gabundus and Terentius argued on the vocative of 'ego' [I], and in the end they attacked each other, with edged weapons." - Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
In a sense, one would expect that "I" should really have a vocative - certainly people talk to themselves sometimes - yet Latin's lack of a vocative "I" is paralleled in English. If John (that old linguists' standby) tells himself "John, get up and do some work", the sentence is not grammatically odd; if he tells himself "*I, get up and do some work" or "*Me, get up and do some work", neither sentence is grammatically possible. Note that no such restriction applies to non-vocative uses; it would be equally grammatical for John to tell himself "I'm in luck!" or "You're in luck!" Even resorting in desperation to the archaic English vocative "O" yields nothing: "O I!" is ridiculous, and "Oh me!" is already in use as a rather silly exclamation. So why should the vocative of "I" be so hard to form?

Update: Thanks to Language Hat, I have learned of an interesting post on the very grammarian of whom Eco is writing.

9 comments:

Paul Davidson said...

English speakers even poke fun at this lack of the vocative, making up humorous replacements.

"So I said to myself: 'Self, let's go get some coffee.'"

On the other hand, sometimes "we" is a natural way to talk to oneself. "What do we have here?" etc.

paul b said...

Perhaps, since one normally knows one's own name, there is no need for a vocative pronoun ;).

Ben Zimmer said...

As it happens, I've written a bit about "So I said to myself, 'Self...'" on Language Log, here, here, and here. Earliest recorded attestation thus far is from a 1965 country & western song, though there are some interesting precursors (back to Luke 12:19, "And I will say to my soul, Soul...").

Lameen Souag said...

Good point - I hadn't thought of the "Self" strategy for filling this gap. But note that, like personal names, it seems to work (to the extent that it does work) by not actually being a pronoun. (3rd person pronouns have no vocative either, but it's a lot harder to think of situations where you could plausibly want to use one.)

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John Cowan said...

Some of the comments to Heidi Harley's posting on "Our father who art in heaven" (also found on Language Log but sans comments) are highly relevant.

David Marjanović said...

For me, the problem is as abstruse as for Eco. I never address myself when I talk to myself. I don't use the imperative with myself. I use constructions like "Now I really need to..." or "So, now I will at long last...". But then I don't constantly remind other people of their names either -- I have little use for any kind of vocative.

michael said...

my wife started using the self-pronoun "Rolonda" after some tv personality wont to speaking of herself in the 3rd person.

i jokingly suggested the masculine of that as "Gilligan".

m.

TankHughes said...

In a long-term mostly long-distance relationship, my pet name was panda, and I used it in a lot of online conversations. It's second nature to me now, and I talk to myself in third panda singular, as in "C'mon panda, we can do this." or "Get out of bed, panda." Calling myself by my real first name would be weird in the vocative, but distancing my audience into a lovable lazy avatar somehow makes pep talks more effective for me. It's weird.

I'm doing an MA in Linguistics at University of York right now and my main love is etymology, but since I acquired a strange grammar of talking to myself, I thought I'd try to find some academic talk on the subject. This is a good starting point, thanks.