v13: sin

This week, pronouns. ‘Grammar‘ lessons told us that pronouns “substitute for a noun”. Which is only part of the story: pronouns are anaphors; they both substitute for and refer to a noun, but which noun? Working out which noun is called ‘anaphor resolution’. Consider these sentences, and ask yourself: whose girlfriend?:

1 Erik is dancing with his girlfriend.
2 Lars saw Erik dancing with his girlfriend.
3 Lars is upset because Erik is dancing with his girlfriend.
4 Erik and his girlfriend are dancing.

I suggest: 1 Erik’s; 2 ambiguous; 3 Lars’; 4 Erik’s. But you can see how both 1 and 4 could refer to a girlfriend other than Erik’s, given the appropriate context. That is, anaphor resolution is not straightforward.

In Swedish, we find the 3rd person reflexive possessive pronouns sin/sitt/sina (common/neuter/plural). Quick check: why only 3rd person? Just seeing if you’re awake! These pronouns refer back to the subject of the sentence and, at least in theory, should help in anaphor resolution. Look here:

5 Erik dansar med sin flickvän.
6 Erik dansar med hans flickvän.

Both of these are translated as Erik is dancing with his girlfriend (by the way, isn’t flickvän a lovely word!), but in 5, sin refers to Erik, whereas in 6, hans refers to someone other than Erik (possibly, Lars). So, does this solve the anaphor resolution problem? Well, no. You’ll note I said that the reflexive possessive pronouns refer back to the subject of the sentence; they can’t themselves act as the subject, so:

7 Erik och hans flickvän dansar.
*8 Erik och sin flickvän dansar.

7 is ambiguous again, just as in English, while 8 is ungrammatical (hence the *). What else? Well, analyse these, as they say:

9 Lars såg Erik dansa med sin flickvän.
10 Lars såg Erik dansa med hans flickvän.

Both translate to Lars saw Erik dancing with his girlfriend, but a quick “whose girlfriend?” poll of some Swedish colleagues revealed the following interpretations:

Sentence 9: Erik=3; Lars=1; unsure or ambiguous=2
Sentence 10: Erik=2; Lars=3; unsure or ambiguous=1

My Swedish teacher agreed with the majority in each case, but it does show that context may be important in interpreting sentences such as these, and that a belief that there are hard and fast rules about ‘grammar’ may sometimes be misguided, if it gets in the way of having your words understood.

Glad Påsk!
Happy Easter!

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 08:48  Comments (3)  
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