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.