Friday, May 28, 2010

My German

Here's a curious bit of linguistics: American Students refer to studying languages using a possessive phrase, but not other studies:

a. I have to work on my German.
b. *I have to work on my math.
c. *I have to work on my biology.

Note that all three could easily include the word "skills" at the end, but only (a) is acceptable bare  (to me, anyway). I wonder if this is related to the creative work metonymy construction that Pullum just posted about over at LL (it was that post which triggered my thinking on this). Being able to speak a language can be seen as a kind of creative work (i.e., the speaker is producing the language in a way they are not producing biology).

13 comments:

D. Sky Onosson said...

Interesting - I find all three perfectly acceptable. I also find them all fine without the possessive. Not sure if this reflects a Canadian (me) vs. American divide, or if it's just more idiosyncratic.

Sylvia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Sullivan said...

Seems natural to me in that language is clearly varies greatly between people. Completely aside from prescriptive or descriptive linguistic concerns about the indefinite nature of any given language, word choice and style constitute individual expression.

In contrast, biology and mathematics are essentially studies of universal truths about the universe. In fact, using the possessive with them is often considered insulting -- "That (stupid thing) only makes sense if you are using (so-and-so)'s math."

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I find all three perfectly fine and ordinary, too. I'm from the UK.

jp 吉平 said...

I speak Pacific Northwest English, and I find the three examples acceptable.

I would suggest however, that when I say "I have to work on my math" there is an understood "homework" at the end.

Also, I wonder if the "my" items like languages might be considered "skills" or rather than school subjects. How do you feel about the following:

I have to work on my German.
I'm a music major, so I have to work on my piano.
I have to work on my parallel parking.
You should work on your pirouettes.

Brian said...

A Midwesterner, I also find all three acceptable (when the homework context is understood).

D. Sky Onosson said...

jp 吉平:

I find all your examples acceptable.

Chris said...

Interesting. My intuition is clearly in the minority. Is it that y'all are thinking of "working on homework" as the semantics (where there is a specific object homework that is being modified by math? Whereas I'm thinking of "working on a general skill set" as the semantics. Think of the phrase "I'm working on my health." That's a close cousin to the "my German" semantics that I'm envisioning.

D. Sky Onosson said...

For me, the "homework" implication isn't necessary at all. "I have to work on my math" = "I have to try to improve my math skills" or "I have to work on my math homework". I don't really have a strong preference for one reading over the other, depending on context (i.e. in the case of a school-age child speaker, I would likely assume they mean homework).

In contrast, the non-possessives do not easily allow the non-homework reading for me, *except* in the case of languages. "I have to work on math" = ?"I have to work on math skills" is doubtful, but = "I have to work on math homework" is fine. "I have to work on German" = "I have to improve my German fluency" is much better, though the homework reading is still preferable.

N said...

Funny, I speak southern Englsh and find them all acceptable. Who have you tested these judgments on, or are they simply your own?

Chris said...

N, this was just my personal intuition, which is clearly not shared by many, but my intuition is strong. I'm still convinced we're all not quite reading these the same.

Jason M. Adams said...

I find them all acceptable, though I would say that the last two I would interpret as amusing innovations. They sound grammatical to my ear, but would probably make me chuckle (given the reading that most closely matches #1). If the context were skills or homework, they are perfectly normal to me.

Chris said...

Jason, I think you're onto something. To my ear, the metonymy in 1 is different from the metonymy in 2 & 3. German is standing in for something different than "skills" or "homework" in my reading. Not sure how to express it though.