Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Eat Your Liver!

Posted by Neal on July 22, 2008

My mom was telling me about one of my relatives who’s been having blood problems for a few years. “Now,” she said, “his red cell count is way down.”

“That’s not good,” I said. “Guess he’d better eat his liver.”

I thought for a second, then added, “Well, not his own liver…”

As I reflected on the conversation later, it occurred to me that this potentially dangerous ambiguity could have been avoided if English made a distinction between inalienable and alienable possession. To illustrate, here’s an example (from Wikipedia, but with sources cited) from the language Dholuo, spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, and Sudan. Cogo guok, literally “bone dog”, means “the dog’s bone”, and more specifically, the bone that the dog is eating — an example of alienable possession. To refer to a bone that’s part of the dog’s skeleton — inalienable possession — you’d say it differently. The Wikipedia entry doesn’t give a translation for this meaning of “the dog’s bone”, but it does give one for “the cow’s bone”: cok dhiang’. Dhiang’ means “cow”, and cok is the same word for “bone” as before, but this time in a special form for this kind of possessive.

Even the clarification I made, by saying “his own liver”, isn’t as effective as a marked alienable/inalienable distinction. If Kim and Sandy have each been served a plate of liver, and Sandy tries to steal some off Kim’s plate, Kim might well say to Sandy, “Hey! Eat your own liver!” with an inalienable possessive meaning for your.

Distinguishing between alienable and inalienable possession would also be useful if you’re trying to warn someone about the dangers of zombies. Suppose you tell them, “Zombies will eat your brains!” If the warning could be stated with an unambiguous, inalienable possessive, the gravity of the threat would be instantly clear. As things stand, though, someone could interpret your as an alienable possessive, and take these undead menaces no more seriously than they would the Hamburglar or the Trix rabbit.

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2 Responses to “Eat Your Liver!”

  1. viola said

    You got my attention with alienable and inalienable possessives and their particular necessities of clarification. But, the Trix Rabbit? Does he really belong in the same category as the zombie and Hamburgler? After all, he’s just a bunny rabbit. Is it the over-population thing that rabbits have going on in general that brings out the menacing thoughts you have toward the Trix Rabbit? Or is it just simple preference equal to the disdain I have for the Lucky Charm Leprechan, even though I really do like leprechans…er…at least the idea of them?🙂

  2. Rachel Klippenstein said

    It seems to me that you could also resolve the ambiguity if there were an easy way to tell apart mass and count nouns, since it’s unlikely that you were thinking of a particular liver that he owns but that isn’t part of him.

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