On beyond personal datives?

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Yesterday, Daniel Mahaffey wrote to ask about his friend's "unusual indirect object sentences". Thus after backing into a dog in a crowded kitchen, she said "I nearly stepped on me a dog".

Daniel reasons that this is analogous to the benefactive pronouns in standard written English phrases like "I wrote him a song", or in widespread vernacular examples like "I wrote me a song" (where the standard version would be "wrote myself a song").

But, as Daniel observes, a couple of things are different in this case. First, analogous examples in (what we might call) the standard vernacular would put the pronoun before rather than after an intransitive preposition: "I stacked me up some firewood", not "I stacked up me some firewood". Second, in "… stepped on me a dog", the pronoun me has a looser semantic connection to the verb than typical benefactives — it doesn't refer to a beneficiary, recipient, or purpose of the action, instead apparently adding just a vague sense of interest or involvement. This may be why "…stepped me on a dog" seems (if anything) even odder to me than "…stepped on me a dog".

But wait, there's more. Daniel notes that his friend (who is from SE Georgia) also says things like "I need to go look for me a dress" or "I'm going to the mall to shop for me a dress".. In these examples, the placement of the pronoun seems even more surprising, since for is a transitive preposition expressing an argument of look or shop — here "a dress" — and me is thus inside a prepositional phrase, not just on the wrong side of a particle.

For a recent discussion of constructions of this type, with a good survey of the literature, see Laurence R. Horn, "'I love me some him': The landscape of non-argument datives", in Bonami & Hofherr (eds.), Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics 7, 2008.

A familiar syntactic feature of dialectal (Southern and Appalachian) U.S. English is the optional occurrence of a nonsubcategorized “personal dative” pronominal in transitive clauses which obligatorily coindexes the subject but whose semantic contribution is ill-understood. As we shall see, this personal dative (PD) bears suggestive if not always straightforward relations to constructions in such languages as French, German, Walpiri,Hebrew, and Old English involving what have been variously termed “ethical”, “free”, “non-lexical”, or “affected” datives. Some of these datives are coreferential with the subject (e.g. Je me prends un petit café, lit. "I take me a little coffee") while others are non-coreferential (e.g. Ils lui ont tué son oiseau, lit. " They killed him his bird"); they typically invite benefactive and malefactive (adversative) understandings respectively.

On the helpful side, Larry argues that the southern American "personal datives" are not indirect objects, and indeed claims that "they are not arguments at all, but non-subcategorized pronouns". An analysis of this type might open up wider syntactic vistas, including even occurrence between a preposition and its object noun phrase. But Larry's list of the properties of PDs starts with two generalizations that rule out Daniel's friend's usage:

a. PD constructions always co-occur with a quantified (patient/theme) direct object.
b. PDs can’t be separated from the verb that precedes and case-marks them.

So if Daniel's description is accurate, and the cited sentences are not speech errors and not re-analyzable in some other way, then there's indeed something different here from the patterns described for the southern American personal dative by Larry and the series of past works that he cites.  I believe that I've also heard things like Daniel's examples, and I'll check with my southern and south midlands consultants to see what they think.

[The section on the dative in Allen and Greenough's Latin Grammar observes that

In Latin the Dative has two classes of meanings:

  • The Dative denotes an object not as caused by the action, or directly affected by it (like the Accusative), but as reciprocally sharing in the action or receiving it consciously or actively. […]
  • The Dative is used to express the purpose of an action or that for which it serves. This construction is especially used with abstract expressions, or those implying an action.

Further down in the section, we find:

The Dative often depends, not on any particular word, but on the general meaning of the sentence (Dative of Reference).

The dative in this construction is often called the Dative of Advantage or Disadvantage, as denoting the person or thing for whose benefit or to whose prejudice the action is performed. […]

In this construction the meaning of the sentence is complete without the dative, which is not, as in the preceding constructions, closely connected with any single word. […]

The Dative of the Personal Pronouns is used to show a certain interest felt by the person indicated.

This construction is called the Ethical Dative. It is really a faded variety of the Dative of Reference.

This is not to say that English grammar is Latin grammar. But there's clearly an analogy in this case.]

[Update — two observed examples:

I have you some chocolate.

Context: response to a request for something hot to drink; the chocolate in question had been obtained, some time earlier, specifically for the requester.

Here's you a bowl of soup.

Context: serving something unrequested; the soup is for general consumption, but is offered outside of meal times.

Both examples seem roughly equivalent to a final "for you" — "I have some chocolate for you"; "Here's a bowl of soup for you".]


  1. Craig Russell said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 3:21 am

    The Latin (and Greek) ethical datives are really weird—weird in what seems to me a more extreme way than Daniel's friend's examples.

    In the Bonami & Hofherr definition, it is mentioned that these English "ethical datives" obligatorily coindex the subject–which I take to mean that Daniel's friend could say "I nearly stepped on me a dog" but not "I nearly stepped on you a dog."

    That necessary reflexivity means (to me) that, even if "the semantic contribution is ill-understood", there's at least some kind of lifeline connecting the pronoun to the rest of the sentence (i.e. the fact that it renames the subject). Am I off track in thinking that an expanded version of the thought might be rendered "I nearly got myself into a situation where I stepped on a dog"?

    Anyway, Latin and Greek ethical datives are weirder because they don't have that restriction about the pronoun having to reflect the subject. In the passage Mark mentions in Alan and Greenough, an example given of the ethical dative is this:

    Quid mihi Celsus agit?

    Here mihi is the dative of the first person singular pronoun, and so is normally translated "(to/for) me". Ignoring mihi for a minute, the rest of the sentence means "What is Celsus doing?" But here, mihi does NOT add the regular dative-of-reference/advantage sense that could be translated "What is Celsus doing to me?" like you might think it would. With an ethical dative, the connection between the dative pronoun and the rest of the sentence is more loose and "ill-understood" than in any of our English examples–here what the mihi adds is roughly, "Gee, I'd really like to know." A&G give a characteristically old-fashioned translation of this sentence, "Pray, what is Celsus doing?" in which 'pray' is the best they can do to represent the mihi.

    Greek has the exact same construction used in the exact same sense. In Smyth's Greek grammar, after a similar description of the ethical dative, he gives some interesting English examples, from Shakespeare, of course!

    "Knock me here"–Taming of the Shrew 1.2.8 (going to the actual passage, I see that Shakespeare is doing a typical bit of wordplay here, where the joke is that the "me" can be understood both as this "ethical dative" and as a simple direct object.)

    "Study me how to please the eye" (Love's Labour's Lost 1.1.80)

    Smyth also has a note after his description of the ethical dative:

    This construction reproduces the familiar style of conversation and may often be translated by "I beg you, please, you see, let me tell you," etc. Sometimes the idea cannot be given in translation.

    So…the ethical dative is pretty weird in Greek and Latin, and seems (like Daniel's friend's examples) to be most heavily used in a looser and more casual register of speech. I guess that's what happens when a language has a bunch of noun cases to play around with. I'd be curious to see more examples in other modern languages with more extensive case inflection in their nouns and pronouns (as Bonami & Hofherr suggest).

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 4:20 am

    It's postings like this one that make reading LL such a rich experience. The sentence quoted was bewildering at first, but, finally, positively savory. I'm going to enjoy saying things like this in the future. Have I learned a new grammatical construct, or have I expressed one that was latent? "I loves me some pie" was already familiar.

    For some of these examples, inserting a preposition "for" makes them seem more familiar. I can't imagine where or what I'd insert into "I nearly stepped on me a dog". Does inserting a preposition, when it works, actually change the case to one not interesting?

  3. John Cowan said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 4:43 am

    In Julius Caesar, Casca describes Caesar's actions after he refuses the crown that Antony offers him thus: "Marry, before he fell down, when he perceived the common herd was glad he refused the crown, he plucked me ope his doublet and offered them his throat to cut." (I.ii; emphasis added) Clearly, Casca does not mean that Caesar plucked open his doublet for Casca, so this is not a straight benefactive, but Casca does appear to take a personal interest in the action, going on to say "An I had been a man of any occupation, if I would not have taken him at a word, I would I might go to hell among the rogues."

  4. Neener said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 5:02 am

    "A familiar syntactic feature of dialectal (Southern and Appalachian) U.S. English is the optional occurrence of a nonsubcategorized “personal dative” pronominal in transitive clauses which obligatorily coindexes the subject but whose semantic contribution is ill-understood"

    Wow. What does it mean that I (think I) get this sentence but only really understand the first half?

    Part of me thinks it means that a well constructed sentence can deliver its oomph even to an ignorant audience. Part of me thinks "The FEIS violates NEPA, FLMPA, FOGRMA, and FOOGLRA because OSMRE failed to consider the GHG impacts and generally acted like D-bags."

  5. Neener said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 5:03 am

    I gotta get me some linguistics training.

  6. Sid Smith said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 6:41 am

    > "I'd be curious to see more examples in other modern languages"

    Some of the Latin oddness seems to survive in modern Italian.

    "Mi hanno rubato la password di hotmail" means "They have stolen my hotmail password." I've no idea, though, why "mi" is used as if it's the indirect object — as in "Mi hanno detto la password" ("They have told me the password").

    Anyone out there who (unlike me) can /really/ speak Italian?

  7. Aaron Davies said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    @Neener: I'm astonished, me, to find that your acronym-laden gibberish actually appears to mean something (about environmental policy, AFAICT).

    (That's not a dative BTW, that's apparently a bit of Cajun influence, at least according to True Blood.)

  8. Lou Hevly said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    In Catalan what's referred to as the "datiu ètic" is used to emphasize an affectionate relationship or special interest on the part of the speaker.

    Aquest nen no m'estudia gens.
    (This boy [of mine] doesn't study at all.)
    Escolta, no m'arribis tard, eh, demà!
    (Listen, don't arrive late [on me] tomorrow)

  9. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    Hrm, interesting. I've not heard this before working in rural east-central Alabama, but I'll listen around today to see if I hear it. Is there any more information on the south-eastern Georgian? Socio-economic status, race, location (urban/rural) would help me to try to pinpoint it in the wild.

  10. Nicholas said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 8:48 am

    I have a slightly connected dative query.

    As a classicist I spend a lot of my time teaching Latin, and I spend quite a bit of that time encouraging my students to think critically about language by comparing and contrasting English and Latin ways of saying the same thing. So, when we come across the double-accusative construction used with some Latin verbs, I suggest to them what seems to me to be the exact English equivalent:

    te linguam Latinam doceo = 'I teach you Latin'

    In both Latin and English, either object can be used on its own (te doceo = 'I teach you'; linguam Latinam doceo = 'I teach Latin'), so it seems reasonable to assume that this construction simply conflates these two possibilities. The 'you' in this sentence is evidently fulfilling a different function from that in 'I give you a Latin book', where it is clearly an indirect object.

    However, a student once objected that this 'you' in the English sentence is a dative use, and not a direct object; since then I have never been quite sure what to think – my researches in English grammar books have not proved particularly fruitful. I now wonder whether it is also possible to claim that this is an ethical dative use? Can anyone offer a definitive answer or any further thoughts?

  11. Boris Blagojević said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 8:51 am

    > I'd be curious to see more examples in other modern languages with more extensive case inflection in their nouns and pronouns (as Bonami & Hofherr suggest).

    Croatian does this very often – in fact, all the examples of the "weird dative pronouns" can be translated in the same way (što mi radi Celsus is rather colored stylistically, but would be natural in certain contexts).
    All the dative personal pronouns have short, clitic forms (mi, ti, mu/joj, nam, vam, im and universal reflexive si), and it "feels" really easy to put them in a sentence. So even when they can be translated with for + pronoun in English (e.g. could you warm it up for me), it's a lot easier to do so.
    I think the sentence "skoro sam si nagazio na psa" would be most naturally translated to English as "I nearly stepped on my dog", and I guess the "I nearly stepped on me a dog" caries the similar connotations. In fact, using dative pronoun is often the only neutral way of expressing possessive relation, since the possessive pronouns do carry accent. In sentences like "pogledala si je u torbu" (she looked in her bag) the possessive meaning is the only one present, in "brat mi je bolestan" (my brother is sick), I'd say it's the mix of possessive and "interest", and in "raspala mi se knjiga iz knjižnice" (something like "the book I borrowed in the library fell apart" it's only interest.
    I hope this helps (and it isn't to far off the topic).

  12. Brett said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    When I took high school German, the class was confused by reflexive verbs. But when the teacher explained that all we were saying was a direct translation of, e.g., "I remember me that party," or "After than run, I feel me pretty sore," everybody instantly got it. This was not a population that used these constructions regularly in English (many of us would never have been caught dead talking like that), but we all recognized the construction. Of course, in German, the verbs that use this reflexive pretty much require it, and the associated pronoun is not in the dative. (Of the standard cases, the pronoun forms are most similar to the accusative, but there are differences.)

  13. Lazar said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    @Sid Smith: In my Latin grammar books they mentioned something equivalent – I think it was called the partitive dative. If I remember correctly it even had some currency in Early Modern English – something like "he took me the sword" to mean "he took the sword from me".

  14. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    My first thought was that the speaker is treating "step on" as a phrasal verb, thus "stepped on me a dog" would be parallel to "bought me a dress". I should note that while I do consider personal datives to be a little bit country, I definitely have them in my grammar (acquired in Atlanta).

  15. Lazar said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    Re: my previous comment: Sorry, it's called the dative of separation. (And I think I may have been conflating it with something else in reference to Early Modern English.) The example they give is "gladium mihi rapuit", "he snatched my sword from me".

  16. Mark P said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:35 am

    I'm from northwest Georgia. "Stepped on me a dog" sounded a little odd at first, but that's mainly because I don't use that type of construction much these days. After I read the other examples it made perfect sense. The placement of "on" might seem a little odd but, to my ear it has to be where it is.

    I'm pretty sure that type of expression is dying out with other regional speech patterns. Fifty years ago it would have sounded normal to me in almost any setting, but today it sounds like someone affecting exaggerated Southern speech.

  17. dwmacg said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Spanish has a similar construction, often with the sense that it negatively affected the referent:

    Me han robado el coche
    (They stole me the car). "They stole my car."

    This often combines with the reflexive/middle construction:

    Se me ha roto/curado la pierna
    (more or less literally: The leg broke/cured me itself.) My leg broke/got better on me.

    Se le ha muerto la abuela.
    (more or less literally: The granmother him died herself) His grandmother died on him.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    Hmm. For decades I have been intermittently baffled by the seemingly-gratuitous "me" in "Got myself arrested / Wound me up in jail" (lyrics by John Fogerty from "Wrote a Song For Everyone"). Maybe it's an instance of this construction? Although even then it's a bit odd because most of the other examples are in sentences where there's also a "regular" direct object, and "wind up" in this sense (as opposed to the "wind up a watch" sense) doesn't, to use a Latinism, "take the accusative." Since it's a song lyric, there's always the possibility of poetic license, but poetic license itself is not unbounded and ungrammatical — some sorts of variations from standard syntax are permissible, others not.

    But note that while Fogerty often wrote lyrics in a markedly "rural Southern" register, he was born in Berkeley, Cal. and raised there and elsewhere in the East Bay, so there's always the possibility that what he intended as an authentic Southernism was just a bad guess on his part.

  19. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    Polish does this a lot. Nearly all of the examples above could be translated with "bizarre datives" straight into Polish. However, there are nuances. (I'm not a syntactician, so bear with my descriptions…)

    The original sentence would come out as Prawie sobie na psa nadepnęłam, practically identical to what Boris Blagojević gave for Croatian above; and the "universtal reflective" sobie is the only option. The regular 1st person clitic dative mi is out.

    However, both of the Catalan examples from Lou Hevly, the Celus example from Craig Russell, and most of the remaining examples from Boris would use a "straight" 1st person clitic dative, e.g. Ten chłopak mi się w ogóle nie uczy 'This boy [of mine — said by a parent or e.g. a teacher] doesn't study at all', etc. In some of these, you could substitute the reflexive, but with a change of meaning. E.g. Brat mi choruje 'My brother is ill' would be quite neutral (albeit informal; in a more formal conversation, you would rather say Mój brat choruje). But Mój brat sobie choruje would carry the implication of 'My brother is ill while there are more important things waiting to be done'.

    This type of usage is definitely limited to informal registers.

  20. ukt said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    "Quid mihi Celsus agit ?"

    There is something similar in French : "Qu'est-ce qu'il me fait ?", depending on context, would not be "What is he doing to me ?" but approximately "What on earth is he doing ?"

  21. Mr Punch said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:32 am

    I don't talk like this myself (in English – French is another matter) but all of the examples seem to me to be pretty clear cases of "me" replacing "myself" or "to me/for me" — except for the original example about stepping on a dog. I think the suggestion from Ryan D-K does make sense: "I nearly trod me a dog" sounds a lot less odd.

  22. Adam said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    Ethic datives have to coindex the subject? Why is "you" in "I squeezed you some orange juice" not an ethic dative?

  23. Adam said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    "Somebody set up us the bomb!" ;-)

  24. Timothy Martin said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    It was in the past couple of years that I started picking up the "I loves me some"-type of expression (i.e. I loves me some valentines!). As far as I can tell, it basically means the same thing as "I sure do love valentines!" (although it is usually uttered only after some reference has been made to the speaker actually receiving valentines, not just as a random statement that the speaker happens to like them.)

    I assume this is the same construction either that Daniel is referencing, or that Horn references in his paper?

  25. Timothy Martin said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:48 am

    …Ok, ten seconds after I posted my above comment, I realized that it's really odd to say "I loves" instead of "I love." And yet, people say it. After checking Google, I can say that people use both the "I love me" and "I loves me" versions of this expression, although the former might be more common (it's hard to tell with all the song lyrics getting in the way).

  26. Catanea said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    I was thinking of "trod", too, but I decided "stomped" was a better synonym for "stepped on" – are we dealing with some few phrasal verbs (if that's not some no-longer-acceptable term) rather than strange prepositional ethic dative phrases? I nearly stomp me a dog almost every time I move around here.

  27. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    @Craig Russell:
    Quid mihi Celsus agit?
    I would translate this as "Tell me, what is Celsius doing?"

  28. Suzette Haden Elgin said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    I'm with Ryan Denzer-King; the verb is "step on." And that pattern is alive and well and thriving in Ozark English. I hear it all the time here in northwest Arkansas.

  29. Peter Taylor said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    @NIcholas, it's easy to make a substitution for an obvious indirect object: "I teach Latin to you". If that's the same as "I teach you Latin" (which IMO it is) then the "you" in the latter would appear also to be an indirect object.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    @dwmacg: I have a favorite one of those Spanish agentless dative-reflexive constructions, but it forgot itself on me.

  31. Joaquim said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    So, French, Italian, Catalan, Spanish so far… It seems Romance Languages in general have this kind of construction. Portuguese, Rumanian, anyone?

    However, in these languages the dative is never inside a prepositional phrase, as in "I need to go look for me a dress". I am aware that I should not challenge the analysis of a native speaker who is a linguist in addition, but… is it possible that the phrasal verb [lookfor] acts here as a unit, "a dress" being the direct object (not specifically related to the preposition)? Then "me" is not inside a prepositional phrase.

    @Sid Smith: In "Mi hanno rubato la password", "mi" is the indirect object indeed (same thing in the other three languages mentioned above: "On m'a volé mon mot de passe", "M'han robat el password", "Me han robado el password"). In fact I just learned from you that steal can not have an indirect object in standard English ("They have stolen me my facebook password"). I'd bet Daniel Mahaffey's friend can say that!

  32. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    In the mid-1930s I spent several summers on Sullivans Island (of Gold Bug fame) just off the coast of Georgia. A lot of the locals (a couple of generations from indigo-plantation slaves) spoke Gullah (q.G.), which shaded off into standard Georgia English among the young. I dint know nuffin bout no linguistics then, but I remember that "Spider," a local boy I used to go fishing with, used expressions like "I caught me a stingray" that my father had to ablate from my vocabulary after we got back home.

    I wonder if Daniel's friend was exposed to Gullah at an early age.

  33. John O'Toole said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    A propos French and Latin: I was trying to learn Latin in French in a French-speaking university when my French wasn't completely up to snuff (this almost three decades ago) and I well remember an older fellow student explaining a "mihi" (I suppose) with a turn of phrase in French, as I recall it, "Je te lui chaufferai les oreilles !" Literally "I'm going to you him heat (box) the ears!" (You'll see, I'm gonna box his ears! or Believe you me, I'm gonna box his ears!)

    I remember the construction completely flummoxed me at the time. This was something like dative overload for me, I guess. In any case, French behaves similarly to the other Latin-derived languages mentioned above. "On lui a vole le/son mot de passe," if I'm not mistaken: literally "one stole him his password" or "they've stolen his password." "Elle lui a completement tourne la tete," (she's completely turned his head/gone to his head). "Il leur a rempli la tete de platitudes et d'idees absurdes" (he's filled their heads with empty phrases and absurd ideas).

    A thousand pardons for the absence of the correct accents in the French.

    And what about the "believe you me" above?

  34. Ray Girvan said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    It's probably an unrelated construct, but it's quite a common regional idiom in Britain to use an extra "me" for emphasis, as in "I'm from Yorkshire, me".

  35. Craig Russell said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    From several of these Romance examples, it seems like the Latin ethical dative (and other datives as well) construction has survived, which is really exciting to me as a Classicist!

    @Lazar–the dative of separation usually requires a verb with a prefix derived from a preposition. So you'd have to say

    a me ripuit gladium (He snatched the sword from me.)

    but if you compound the verb with a preposition meaning from, you can use a dative instead of repeating the preposition in the sentence:

    mihi eripuit gladium (He from-snatched me the sword = He snatched away the sword from me.)

    Sometimes I think of the dative as being a kind of weak "object" of the preposition that has been fixed onto the verb (although a dative can't be the object of a preposition, and this preposition takes the ablative), but I think what's really going on historically is that this is an extension of the dative of disadvantage mentioned by Mark in the original post: "He snatched away the sword to my disadvantage."

    @John Cowan

    That Julius Caesar example is much better than the two I quoted; a much more clear-cut example of a purely ethical dative like the weird ones in Latin. I wonder if this was a natural English construction at the time, or if Caesar was imitating the small Latin and less Greek that he knew?

    @Nicholas/Peter Taylor

    You can say "I teach Latin to you", which does suggest that in English at least, "you" is an indirect object. But the problem is that, as Nicholas says, you can say "I'll teach you" by itself to mean "I'll teach things to you"; you can't say "I'll give you" by itself to mean "I'll give things to you". So 'teach' in English seems to work a little differently from other verbs that take indirect objects. "Tell" seems to work the same way: "I'll tell you" = "I'll tell things to you", but "I'll tell you story" can be turned into "I'll tell a story to you."

    I think there's been a LL post in the past about this "indirect object pronoun" question, and I think the conclusion that was reached was that all English cases where the indirect object is expressed by position rather than a prepositional phrase are actually double direct objects–am I remembering wrong?

  36. Bill Walderman said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    Another French example: Regarde-moi ça! “Just look at that, now!”

    French regularly uses a clitic object pronoun with body parts and maybe some personal possessions where English would use a genitive: "Je me suis cassé la jambe." "I broke my leg." *"J'ai cassé ma jambe" sounds un-French. You can use the clitic construction for personal possessions under some circumstances: "On m'a enlevé le passeport. "My passport was stolen." But I don't think you can say *"Je me suis perdu le passeport." I think you have to say "J'ai perdu mon passeport." "I lost my passport." Maybe someone (Marie-Lucie?) can explain this.

    Russian also has a construction where the dative of the reflexive pronoun (which can be used with any person, not just 3rd person) is used with body parts and personal possessions instead of a personal pronominal adjective (if that's the right way to categorize the equivalent to "my", "your," etc.). On slomal sebe nogy.

    In fact, English seems to be the exception–even in Southern American English you can't say *I broke me the leg, though I think you can say "I broke me my leg."

  37. Tom Recht said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    At least in American English (I'm not sure about the distribution of this construction), 'on NP' can function as a kind of ethical dative:

    'My car died on me.'
    'My computer froze on me.'

    (This is different from the constructions in MYL's post and in Horn's paper, since the NP is not co-indexed with the subject, but it's not unlike some of the Romance examples in the comments.)

  38. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    @Craig Russell: all English cases where the indirect object is expressed by position rather than a prepositional phrase are actually double direct objects–am I remembering wrong?

    I don't remember the LL post you refer to, but in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language although the verbs which take such objects are called "ditransitive", the objects are called direct and indirect respectively. The indirect object (in CGEL's account) must be a simple pronoun or noun, not a prepositional phrase, and must come before the direct object. Thus these two sentences mean different things:

    They offered all the overseas students one of the experienced tutors.
    They offered one of the experienced tutors all the overseas students.

    See p. 248.

    You could also say "They offered all the overseas students to one of the exoerienced tutors", for example, but in that case there's only one (direct) object followed by a prepositional phrase.

  39. John Cowan said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    Nicholas: Does Latin have "I called him a fool" or its adjectival analogue "I called him stupid" as a double accusative?

    Dan Lufkin: I think the "me" in "I caught me a stingray" is an ordinary benefactive; the speaker has caught a stingray for himself (= for his benefit and/or by himself, unaided).

    Craig Russell: In the play, Casca is acting the part of an uneducated man. Cassius says in the following conversation that he "puts on this tardy [mentally sluggish] form" as a "sauce to his good wit", making it more palatable to his listeners. So no, I don't think he's being Latinate. In general, Latin syntax in English is the province of the educated, indeed the over-educated — always excepting the accusative and infinitive ("I wanted him to go" as opposed to "I wanted that he go", as found in the related languages), which though present from Old English times became greatly expanded around the revival of learning, surely not by coincidence.

    Bill Walderman: English overspecifies possession from the viewpoint of a Gricean-ly normal language. "John put his hands in his pockets" is mandatory, even though it is not normally the case that people put their hands in others' pockets, or other people's hands in their own pockets; we simply cannot say "John put the hands in the pockets" unless both hands and pockets are not John's own.

  40. Tom Recht said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    Also, in modern Hebrew there's a semantically peculiar use of subject-coindexed ethical datives; the implied sense is something like "the action of the verb concerns the subject and no one but the subject":

    halaxti li barexov
    walk-1sg-past to-1sg in-street
    “I was walking down the street, minding my own business.”

    hu nirdam lo
    he fall.asleep-3sg-past to-3sg
    “He fell asleep, without considering anyone else” – e.g. “We were planning to go out for dinner, but then he went and fell asleep!”

    I've never seen this usage described or analyzed anywhere, though I suppose it must have been (maybe in the Horn paper's Hebrew references, which don't seem to be online).

  41. Jan Schreuder said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    @Joaquim "So, French, Italian, Catalan, Spanish so far… It seems Romance Languages in general have this kind of construction. Portuguese, Rumanian, anyone?"

    The ethical dative is alive and well in Dutch. "Quid mihi agit Celsus" could be translated as "Wat is me Celsus aan het doen?" The ethical dative expresses emphasis and in questions astonishment.

    On second thought, it seems to be limited to the pronoun me, referring to the speaker.

  42. Tom Recht said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    John Cowan: re "John put his hands in his pockets" – on the other hand, "John was wounded in the leg" is more likely than "John was wounded in his leg". I wonder what the difference is.

  43. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    @ John Cowan: The Latin of the Vulgate has the double accusative, as in "vocabis nomen eius Iesum" (Matthew 1: 21).

  44. John Lawler said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    @Ryan, Suzette:

    I don't think the V+P is being treated as a phrasal verb as such, at least not the same kind as look up a book or take off a jacket, i.e, a separable particle. Rather, this has the feel to me of a straightforward transitivizing postclitic. When an intransitive verb becomes transitive by adding a preposition (look at, step on), some people sometimes reify the V+P as a single lexical verb; "lookit" is a standard eye dialect spelling for this. Think of it as one more link in the grammaticalization chain.

    Anyway, if that's the case here, then the free dative should come after the preposition, which is now attached to the preceding verb rather than the following object NP.

  45. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    It seems fairly clear here that me is the poor man's substitute for myself in stepped on me a dog, and that any number of other verbs would prove that out. I nearly bought myself a dog, I nearly kissed myself a dog, etc., seem analogous. To shop for me a dress confounding, though. Some linguistics magic has caused an object of a preposition (dress) to discard its preposition in favor of becoming an object of a verb that doesn't want it (shop).

  46. Joe Fineman said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    Fowler in MEU s.v. ethic(al), ethics 1 comments on Shakespeare: "In _He that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast_ the word _me_ amounts to a parenthetic 'Just fancy!'".

  47. David Marjanović said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    Yes, English is the odd one out, because it has lost the distinction between dative and accusative in the shapes of words, but not quite in the syntax.

    In German, not all of the examples given above are possible, but many are obligatory. Benefactives and malefactives (that is, metaphorical indirect objects) are common, "steal" almost always takes an indirect object instead of a possessive pronoun, and "he put his hands in his pockets" is er steckte sich die Hände in die Taschen, where sich is the dative of the 3rd-person reflexive pronoun and is the only indication of whose hands and whose pockets are involved. Furthermore, a literal translation of "he broke his leg" would imply intent and even planning (he took his leg, draped it across two robust tables, took a giant hammer and…) together with insane detachment.

  48. David Marjanović said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

    the word _me_ amounts to a parenthetic 'Just fancy!'

    No, it's a benefactive: "he that kills […] for me".

  49. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

    That "the word _me_ amounts to a parenthetic 'Just fancy!'" was written by Sir Ernest Gowers, not such a sound classicist as Fowler, who in the 1928 first edition of MEU had this:

    "As the construction was formerly English also (_Come knock me at that door_ = knock at the door, I tell you; _Kills me some six or seven of Scots_ = Kills, they tell me, &c.) the grammatical term for it is still heard on occasion; but its place has been taken by various modern colloquialisms . . ."

    Fowler's account of the English construction corresponds quite closely to that in Kennedy's Revised Latin Grammar:

    ". . . used, in familiar talk or writing, to mark interest or call attention:

    Quid mihi Celsus agit? HORACE.
    _Tell me, what is Celsus about?_

    Haec vobis per biduum eorum militia fuit. LIVY.
    _This, mind you, was their style of fighting for two days._

    NOTE. The person indicated by this Dative derives no advantage from the action, nor is he in any way involved in it."

    Cf. Fowler's "a common Greek & Latin use in which a person no more than indirectly interested in the fact described in the sentence is introduced into it, usually by himself as the speaker, in the dative".

  50. Simon Cauchi said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

    PS I should have written, of course, "six or seven dozen", not "six or seven". My mistake, not Fowler's.

  51. Kenny V said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 1:45 am

    As a Latinist, I've been noticing ethical/advantage/disadvantage datives in English for years, in both very old and very new usages. "I love me some nachos."

  52. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:24 am

    For further discussion, please see Larry Horn's response to commenters here.

  53. Daan said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:50 am

    "The ethical dative is alive and well in Dutch."

    It's certainly still lurking somewhere, but my gut feeling is that you'll generally only come across the ethical dative in set phrases. Using it in a sentence such as Wat is me Celsus aan het doen? strikes me (a child of the 1980s) as slightly archaic. I could be wrong, obviously, but I would expect to hear ethical datives only in set sentences such as:
    Wat doe je me nou? similar to the French "Qu'est-ce qu'il me fait?" posted above.
    Wat bak je me nou? which can be translated as 'What on earth do you think you're doing?'. This phrase seems to be pretty recent.

    Wat zeg je me nou? which can be roughly translated as 'What?!', expressing surprise at what someone else has said.

    The last sentence is interesting though, since me is also the indirect object of the verb zeg (infinitive zeggen) and this sentence could thus also be parsed as 'What did you just tell me?' rather than as a general 'What did you just say?'. However, as a native speaker, I'd never realised that before I read this thread. Interesting.

  54. Etl World News | STRANGE DATIVES. said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    […] the start of Mark Liberman's latest post at the Log: Yesterday, Daniel Mahaffey wrote to ask about his friend's "unusual […]

  55. Therese said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    @Aaron Davies
    True Blood might actually be correct in this case — those of us in francophone (and formerly francophone) Louisiana do use "me"/"myself" in English as we might "moi" (or "mo") in that instance.

    @Bill Walderman
    Responding to your French examples, me, I believe that we might say "I broke me/myself my leg" rather than "I broke me/myself a leg" or "I broke my leg." I remember being told "go break yourself a leg, girl!" by a middle-aged woman during a local play I did as a kid, and I know that I was the only francophone in the cast.

  56. uberVU - social comments said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by languagelog: On beyond personal datives?: Yesterday, Daniel Mahaffey wrote to ask about his friend's "unusual indirect object sent… http://bit.ly/tyVID

  57. Gyre&Gimble said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    […] of  the American South.   This construction  was recently discussed extensively in the article On beyond personal datives? in the Language Log.  Some of the commenters quoted examples that were far more elaborate than […]

  58. Frans said,

    March 14, 2010 @ 9:00 am


    "It's certainly still lurking somewhere, but my gut feeling is that you'll generally only come across the ethical dative in set phrases. … However, as a native speaker, I'd never realised that before I read this thread. Interesting."

    I realize this post is ancient and you're probably never going to read this, but all of the examples you listed strike me as ungrammatical and unidiomatic (the same goes for Jan Schreuder's suggested translation of the Latin phrase). The only expression along those lines that I know is "asjemenou" by Loeki de Leeuw, but I don't know if an animated character counts. "Wat zeg me je nou" doesn't strike me as strange as your other examples, but I'd wager that most people I know would say "wat zeg je nou?" instead.

    Yet I do think that Jan Schreuder may be more or less correct that such personal datives are alive and well in Duch. Not in standard Dutch nor in most Dutch dialects, but I think it is in certain (West) Flemish dialects.

  59. Arrant Pedantry » Blog Archive » Here’s You a Benefactive Dative said,

    February 21, 2012 @ 4:29 pm

    […] what I could find about the construction, but I came up mostly dry. Mark Liberman mentioned it in a Language Log post on personal datives but didn't provide any further explanation. It was also mentioned, again without explanation, […]

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