Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Muppets in the First Person

Posted by Neal on November 5, 2004

A linguistic quirk of the Muppet Elmo is that he refers to himself in the third person. Thus, every “Elmo’s World” segment begins with him saying, “Elmo is happy to see you!” Assuming that Elmo really is happy to see us (which he seems to be), then saying “Elmo is happy to see you” is accurate, if stylistically odd. But in the song “Tu Me Gustas” on this Sesame Street CD, Elmo sings:

Tu me gustas means Elmo likes you, too.

Uh, no it doesn’t. It means, “I like you.” (Or more literally, “You please me.”) Evidently, Elmo’s replacement of I with his own name happens not only when he has occasion to use I, but also when he has occasion just to mention it.

It makes me wonder how Elmo would quote someone who used I in English instead of Spanish. If Oscar the Grouch says, “I love trash!”, would Elmo say, “Oscar says, ‘Elmo loves trash!'”?

On the subject of Muppets’ use of first-person forms, there is Miss Piggy’s well-known subsitution of moi for I or me. She’s nowhere near as consistent as Elmo. I looked at two interviews with her (with some overlap of material), and found that I often appeared in her speech: 5 I for 11 moi in one interview; 19 I for 18 moi in the other. Syntactically, the only pattern I could see was that me was always replaced with moi , and my was almost always replaced with moi’s. But just looking at the places where I is called for, moi often shows up, and I can’t discern a rule for when she will and won’t use it. Since it’s an affectation rather than a naturally developing practice, I suppose she forgets the moi when she’s not thinking as carefully about what she says, but I couldn’t be sure from the two interviews. (Thanks to Language Log for the pointer to the second interview.)

2 Responses to “Muppets in the First Person”

  1. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Because I grew up with Sesame Street as a girl (and learned to love the old episodes), I was shocked when a fan forum posted the first press releases for Season 30. The thought of any character dominating the show for 15+ minutes annoyed me so badly that I couldn’t resist imitating Elmo’s speech pattern when I chose a title for my response. (“Ingeborg thinks ‘Elmo’s World’ stinks!”) No offense meant towards you or the kids, of course…

  2. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    By the way, it seems Elmo’s pronoun-avoidance is generalizing to the second person now–or at least to the second person singular. He’s addressed (not merely mentioned!) Luis and Zoe in the third person so far; the only times I’ve heard Elmo say “you” this season, it was addressed either to the viewer, a group of characters, or someone whose name he doesn’t know.

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