Ya mi niña: who do YOU belong to?

Mi, mi, mi… A few thoughts on linguistic ownership today.

Ya mi niña, nos vemos…

¿Mi niña? I thought, there it is again… Mi niña—my girl—an oddly common expression in Chilean vernacular. I had really tried not be drawn into the cell phone conversation going on next to me in the crowded waiting room yesterday and was pretty successful until the blah-blah-blah, ha-ha-ha, turned to “ya mi niña.” It’s one of those expressions that often seems to signal the end of a conversation and always grabs my attention. I knew she was not talking to her daughter.

Mi niña, mi hija, mi reina, mi general, mi mamá…. who do YOU belong to?

I’m not sure how long this expression has been around, but it came onto my radar 10 years or so ago when someone far younger than me addressed me as “mi niña.” Huh? It seemed odd to me at the time and is still one of those expressions that stops me in my tracks as I try to wrap my brain around it. Yeah, yeah… I know it’s just a term of familiar address, but it always spins my mind off into space to ponder the many possessive ways that Chileans (or all Spanish speakers?) address each other:

Mi hija—and its variations m’ija, m’ija literally “my daughter” (or the masculine form mi hijo, etc., for “my son”) may well be used between parent and child, or even as a term of endearment between an older person and a younger one, which is logical enough, but it may also be used among peers, and at one point, my daughter (whose Spanish point was far more fluent at that point than mine) called ME mi hija… which I let her know was just plain weird, although she assured me in no uncertain terms (as teenage daughters tend to do) that I, frankly, knew nothing. Hmph.

And then there’s the famous mi reina (my queen) or mi rey (my king), which couples may use as a term of endearment, but it shakes me up every time some parking attendant, waiter, and farmers market vendor calls me “his queen.” Just for the record, I really only expect to be called “my queen” in public when I’m wearing my tiara (which I admit is not all that often).

Of course there are the standard formal “mi” rules. Soldiers and police officers refer to their superiors as mi colonel, mi general, etc. as a sign of respect. OK, fair enough, I can deal with that… but it leads me to yet another possessive construction that has caught me off guard more than once. Here’s the scenario: two kids are talking and one says “voy a preguntar a mi mami” (I’m going to ask my mom) and then turns to her and says “¿Podemos ir con mi hermano a donde Pancho?” (Can my brother and I go to Pancho’s?)

Whoa… what is the relationship between these people? An English speaker might think we’re talking about 2 half brothers and a step-mom, because we don’t use possessives when the relationship is shared. Could be, but more likely, it’s a case of two brothers and the mother of both. This is very strange to an English speaker, and in fact, I’m sure my brother would be quite offended if I spoke to him about “my” mother, as if she weren’t his mother too. He would either deck me right there or wonder if there were some family secret he wasn’t in on because in English, the possessive “my” implies that Mom (in this case)  is, by default, not his, hers, yours or even ours; she’s mine. When siblings talk among ourselves, our collective mother is just Mom, and if two siblings are talking to a non-sibling, we would say “our mother,” whereas most Chileans I know would say “my mother” as if linguistically disowning the brother or sister standing by.

By the same token, I would never talk to my mother about “my brother” but would call him by name, because we all know what the relationship, so the above conversation, in English, would be (to him): “I’ll ask Mom” (and then to her): “Hey Mom, can Joe and I go to Pancho’s house?”

This possessive relationship business has confused me more than once, often to the amusement of the native speakers around me. For example, once when many members of my husband’s extended family were going to Concepción for a birthday party, we decided to meet a cousin (let’s call him José) and his wife (um, Luisa will do) and their kids en route and caravan the rest of the way. Luisa said, “Let’s meet in Talca because we have to stop in Curicó to pick up my daughter.”

“That’s odd,” I thought, and asked my husband if he knew that Luisa had a daughter in Curicó. He didn’t, but we knew she had been married before, so OK, could be… So when they all walked into the agreed upon meeting place, I only saw the two kids that I already knew. “Where’s your other daughter?” I asked, thinking there had been a change of plans. Of course there was no other daughter; the girl in question was “Anita,” the daughter of both, whom, of course I knew, and who had been vacationing with friends in Curicó. It took a long recounting of the previous conversation to figure out that it was my hard-wired linguistic structure getting in the way again. She had thrown me off by saying “my daughter” instead of referring to Anita or even saying “one of the girls.”

Of course I tortured my poor husband with endless linguistic ruminations on the topic until I finally got him to admit (perhaps to stop my one-track interrogation) that yes, she could have just said Anita, and that yes, he could see how I could get confused, but that in reality, I was just going to have to get over it because that’s just the way Spanish works.

I’ve got more to say on linguistic possession—or lack thereof—so stay tuned for next time!

For other cautionary tales of linguistic confusion, see also: The Calendar Trap.

11 responses to “Ya mi niña: who do YOU belong to?

  1. I posted about this about a year ago cuz of the most ridiculous situation. I have always thought its so silly that my bf and his brother say “mi mama” in each others company, and also that my boyfriend would talk about OUR house as “mi casa” as if I have no stake in it. Its to the point now that he will say “mi casa, NUESTRA casa” correcting himself when he speaks to me before I jump in and nag about it.

    Anyway in that post I told a story how
    I didn’t think much of the fact that once, every time I would talk to my boyfriend on the phone he he was at “his house”. But whenever I would get back to our house he was nowhere to be seen. Anyway, due to my overgeneralization of this linguistic difference … I somehow failed to realize for quite some time that my boyfriend was actually OUT OF TOWN! He was visiting his parents (obvious another yet another house he considers “his”).

    Nice post, this topic always makes me giggle

  2. Gosh, don’t get ME started on Chileans use of certain words….

    The one that completely confounds me is Chileans’ use of the word “pretend” to mean “plan.”

    For example, politicians will say: “Yo pretendo iniciar un nuevo programa….” I pretend to start a new program… Or journalists will write, “She pretended to run from one end of the country to the other….”


    It seems down here no one plans anymore… everyone just… pretends….


  3. but pretender means to plan, fingir means to pretend! I think this might be a false cognate. Anyone? Anyway, I never learned “pretender” on a vocab list, just heard how people use it.

    Margaret it’s funny that you mention the use of my as an exclusionary tactic and how your brother would react. When my mother has committed (in our opinion) some kind of family foul, my sister and I refer to her as “your mother,” like this: “Do you know what your mother did?” I think parents who share children do this as well, as a way to get a dig in that the child did something typical of the “posessive parent.” (did you see what genius thing your kid pulled off today…)

    I have another pronoun-related beef, which relates to “fuimos con mi mamá” (we went with my mother) when only two people went. I could go on for pages about this. In fact, I’ll put it on the list.

    Love the language-related posts, as you know. I bet Annje weighs in here as well!

  4. I have asked my husband the same questions–why he refers to “mi mama” when talking to his brother or sister. .. and why they say “fuimos con mi mama” as if there are several people in addition to the mother rather than my mother and I. I have used Eileen’s version of “Look what your daughter did” with my husband, especially when his genetics are clearly to blame 😉

    Eileen, I hope you made some money off that bet!

  5. Lydia– that whole “my house” vs “our house” has always seemed strange to me. My husband had not lived with his parents for many years when I met him and even after we had our own home together, he still referred to his mother’s as “his house.” Guess it just goes back to the strength of family ties here.

    Suzanne– yeah, the whole pretender vs pretend thing–makes for some funny situations, but Eileen is right, it’s a false cognate–so the Chileans ARE using it correctly, we’re just understanding it through our English filter. For more fake false cognate fun see: https://cachandochile.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/speaking-chilensis-fake-false-cognates/

    Eileen– I should’ve known you’d pick up on the “we with my brother” thing! I put that in there intentionally, but will save discussion on that one for another time–I think it merits a post of its very own!
    And yes… the whole “your mother” or “your child” thing… I don’t know if Spanish speakers do that (with sarcastic-funny intentions) the way we do… I imagine they must (cuz, hey, it IS very witty and all)–I’ll have to watch for it.

    Annje– when you ask your husband about why he does the possessive “mi mamá” with his siblings… do you get the same eye-rolling treatment I get? I mean, C is usually very good about trying to explain–that is until we get to that exasperated “take my word for it and don’t ask me again” moment!

  6. Pingback: Me Duele la Cabeza: Whose head hurts you? « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  7. Ahhh! Yes again! I too for awhile thought that a friend’s sister had a different mother than him. And it made sense because she looks a lot different…haha.

    As Eileen mentioned, I too especially hate the “fuimos con Juanita a la feria” when only two people went. Does anyone know if that is grammatically correct or just a Chilean thing?

    Pretender vs. fingir can be funny when teaching English because I have had students who’ve said things like “I pretend to go to the US to study.” And it’s like, oh really? You play make-believe and you’re 30 years old? How cute.

    I liked these two posts a lot Peg!

  8. I asked my boyfriend about why people will say MI MAMA when they are in front of their brothers and sisters and he was befuddled. He didn’t know. All he could say was that saying nuestra mamá sounded funny. I used to think that people did it as a joke because my good friend G. does it all the time in front of her brother. But no. I was wrong. Oh Spanish is so weird sometimes.

  9. Nope, there’s no joke about it. And every time I ask the question they have the same “because ‘our mother’ would sound weird”. Well, it sounds weird in English too, that’s why we use names when it is clear who we are speaking about, so two brothers who say “Mom” understand who that is, the same way neighbors talking about “Bob” know we mean the guy who lives across the street!

  10. I love your blog! This post reminded me how I always thought it was strange that my mom referred to their mom as “mi mama” when talking to her sister… but I never asked her about that! 🙂

  11. Hi Michelle-
    Thanks! Is your Mom Chilean? Or is this something people do in all Spanish-speaking cultures?

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