Luv u

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My wife had an aversion to the first person pronoun.  She would do practically anything to avoid saying "I".  She thought it was egotistical to make frequent, direct reference to herself, whether in speech or in writing.  Among traditional Chinese, she probably was not entirely unique in that regard, but she was extreme in her first person avoidance, and it was through her that I became aware of the lengths to which someone might go keep from saying "I".

I do not fully comprehend the psychological reasons why some people shy away from use of the first person pronoun, but my sense is that it has to do with not wanting to be assertive.

Omission of the first person pronoun was almost like a religion for Li-ching, but zero anaphora extended beyond the first person to all the other pronouns, though not as prohibitively.  Sinitic languages, by nature, are pro-drop; it's not unusual to see twenty or more sentences in a row without a pronoun.

See:

Keith Vander Linden, Zhihua Long, and Liang Tao, "Chinese Zero Anaphora in Translation: A Preliminary System" in Victor H. Mair and Yongquan Liu, eds., Characters and Computers ( Amsterdam, Oxford, Washington, Tokyo:  IOS Press, 1991).

It was particularly difficult, virtually impossible, for Li-ching to say "I love you" to anyone, not even her mother or me, for both of whom she had deep affection.

See:

"On the overt verbal expression of romantic love as a modern habit" (2/14/17)

With Li-ching's "I" avoidance and "I love you" avoidance as a background, I was intrigued when recently (within the last few years) I have been hearing more and more people, especially young people, toss off the expression "luv u" in their conversations with others.  I think I hear it most often near the conclusion of telephone conversations.  It seems to function as a signal that the speaker wants to stop talking.  My impression is that, after "luv u", it's not even necessary to say "goodbye".

When I first heard this casual "luv u", I thought that perhaps it might be the quirk of a few individuals.  It was not long, however, before I became aware of just how pervasive this usage is in the current vocabulary of the younger generation.

In truth, I don't know precisely what "luv u" means or is meant to mean.  Well, maybe it's just "I love you" lite.  It's similar to "miss u", which also peppers the speech of people I overhear talking on their cell phones.  Is this some kind of "I" avoidance as with Li-ching?  Or is it simple elision to save a syllable?

For a cross-cultural, cross-linguistic study relevant to "I love you" and "luv u", I recommend:

Rémi CAMUS, "'Je t'aime' revisité / 'Je t'aime' Revisited", Inter Faculty Institute for Comparative Research in Human and Social Sciences, University of Tsukuba 6 (2015).

The footnotes about Chinese and Japanese may be of particular interest to some LLog readers:

English Abstract:

The French phrase Je t'aime is frequently to be found written on everyday items or used as a leitmotiv in commercial music. It is believed to be more or less translatable in all languages irrespective of context. This paper attempts to deal with the linguistic implications of these and other distinctive features that make Je t'aime such an unusual linguistic object. The first part is devoted to an attempt at translating Je t'aime in Japanese and Hungarian. It comes out that there exist at least three classes of interpretation, three ways of producing equivalent utterances based on a translation of the verb aimer. The second part focuses on the French phrase per se; it examines some famous accounts of Je t'aime by Paul Valéry, Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Marion and tries to grasp and emphasize their linguistic meaning. The results of the morphology and syntax-driven analysis in Part 1 prove also relevant without modification of the surface formal structure. As a conclusion, we propose three interpretative patterns with their own grammatical features and even pragmatic outcomes; the pseudo-universal motto of French amour is but one of them.

Luv ya!



35 Comments

  1. Gwen Katz said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 1:56 am

    My mother had the exact opposite aversion: She would go to great lengths to avoid saying "you". She'd learned about "I language" at some conflict resolution seminar and she got the idea that not using the word "you" would make people do what she wanted.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 4:26 am

    I am a little confused, Professor Mair. You write specifically of 'hearing more and more people, especially young people, toss off the expression "luv u"' and you repeat the concept of "hear" again at as "heard" and "overhear", so what is it that leads you to assert that they are saying "luv u" rather than the more conventional "love you" ? Of course, as we all know, in spontaneous speech we do not "say" either "luv" or "love" — we make a sound which a listener can interpret as he/she wishes, but I nonetheless find it interesting that you report it as "luv u".

    On first-person avoidance, my wife's L1 is Vietnamese, and in her telephone conversations with her family I hear her invariably refer to herself as "Heng" (the Chinese form of her Vietnamese name — the family are of mixed Chinese/Vietnamese race, in the ratio 75:25), and in conversation with friends she would typically use "em" ("this young female person"). The word "tôi" exists (it is the literal equivalent of "I") but to the best of my belief I have never heard her use it, although she has just assured me on the telephone that situations exist in which she would use the word such as, for example, when speaking to someone unknown on the telephone where the relative age/status was unclear.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 5:32 am

    In a null-subject language, when you actually include the pronoun in a situation where it can easily be understood, it doesn't really mean that pronoun: it means that pronoun WITH EMPHASIS.

    Example (non NSL):
    Where did John go?
    *went to the store.

    Example (NSL):
    Where did John go?
    Went to the store (meaning: he went to the store)
    He went to the store (meaning: HE went to the store)

  4. Chris Button said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 5:54 am

    Along the same lines as Jenny Chu's comment, this made me think about whether we're talking about pronoun dropping per se (as in Spanish for example where more complex verbal inflections mean no loss in intelligibility) or rather the simple reduction of unstressed syllables to schwa and then the further reduction of schwa to zero when that can be done without loss of intelligibility.

    Taking the famous Sam Cooke song as an example with stressed syllables in caps:

    a CHANGE is GOing to COME

    We then get:

    a CHANGE GONna COME

    And finally:

    a CHANGE GON COME

    In the case of "I love you", unless we are stressing the fact that it is me who is doing the loving or you who is the recipient of it as opposed to someone or something else, we have: "i LOVE you". When we speak we really need to keep the last "you" to avoid less of intelligbility (perhaps modeled on "SEE you" as a parting comment) but as the speaker we can easily drop unstressed "i". When signing off a letter, we can drop both of them to leave just "love" as then the doer and the recipient are both implicit.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 6:14 am

    I have always mentally interpreted "love <sender>" as the closing salutation of a letter as "[with] love [from] <sender> rather than as "[I] love [you].

  6. cliff arroyo said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 6:28 am

    ""em" ("this young female person")."

    Just a quick clarification, 'em' means 'younger sibling (of either sex) and young men can also use it to refer to themselves.
    It is more common for women to use it since one of the most common ways for male-female couples to refer to themselves are anh 'older brother' and em 'younger sibiling' (both refer to the man as 'anh' and both refer to the woman as 'em' so it can sound like a conversation about other people….)

  7. WoD said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 6:42 am

    Back in the 80's, I knew this white middle-class Catholic family in LA who used "love you," as a parting greeting, either instead of or in combination with other parting greetings such as "bye" and "see you."

  8. WoD said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 6:57 am

    Oh, and as far as personal pronouns, my mother and her family (all my family are Japanese living in Japan) tend to use familial relationships when talking to their children, nephews/nieces. That is, my mother would refer to herself as "okaasan" (mother) when talking to me, and "obasan" (aunt) when talking to my cousins. My aunt would call herself "obasan" when talking to me, and "okachan" (another form for mother) to her kids. My father, however, would sometimes use the personal pronoun "ore," and sometimes "otosan" (father). My recollection is that he used "ore" more frequently, but I'm not sure of the exact frequency.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 10:34 am

    No need for confusion, Philip Taylor.

    I have seen people write "luv u" in similar circumstances at the conclusion of stms, online chats, notes, etc.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 10:50 am

    Wrt Jenny Chu's example, this:

    Q: Where did John go?
    A: *Went to the store.

    is impossible in English.

    But these three answers are all conventional:

    A: To the store.
    A: The store.
    A: He went to the store.

    I see them all as equivalent; I don't think the third provides any particular emphasis on anything.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 10:58 am

    VHM: Yes, I was not suggesting that it was never written, merely confused by the fact that you reported that it was what they said. Whether people can say "luv u" seems (to me) an important question …

    Michael Watts: In my mind's ear, I can most certainly hear a dialogue in a Western (i.e., "cowboys and Indians") film with exactly the words of your example 1. Google reports four instances, of which the first reads 'Where did he go?" "Went to get water for his mother this morning and didn't return." '.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 11:53 am

    Of course people can say "luv u". When they read "luv u" aloud they're saying it.

    Again, no need for confusion.

  13. Adrian said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

    I-dropping is a feature of many languages, of course. Either formally, e.g. Hungarian (Nem tudom), or informally, e.g. English and German (Dunno/Weiss nicht). I'd be interested to read a survey and analysis of this.

  14. Neil Kubler said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 2:06 pm

    Traditionally, Chinese uses the 1st person singular pronoun much less than English. I agree that overuse comes across as arrogant and always mention this to students (and correct accordingly). However, years ago I did research showing that under the influence of European languages (starting in written translations into Chinese and spreading from there into regular Chinese), modern Chinese uses pronouns more than before. Moreover, relative constructions with pronoun heads like shen wei Zhongguo rende wo "I, who am a Chinese" or "Ta suojiuchulaide ni" "you, whom he (the fireman) saved" are completely new in Chinese. And ta "it" and tamen "they" in subject position are also new and the result of foreign influence (traditionally only ta, not tamen, could be used as "it" and only in object position, e.g., neixie dongxi ni ba ta diudiao ba "those things, why don't you throw them out"). Re "luv u," my son and wife speak Mandarin to each other, and through English influence, he typically when departing or ending a phone call will say "Ai ni!" Finally, regarding subject deletion in English, there are some speakers whose spoken style, esp. when relating past events (historical present), will frequently omit "I" a la chinoise. Example: "I moved to Massachusetts in '72. Liked what I saw, looked for a position, found one at Mt. Greylock High. Brought the family here the following year, been here ever since…" But formal written English would certainly require far more pronouns than this sort of clipped, colloquial style.

  15. S Frankel said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 2:16 pm

    @WoD – I don't know any Japanese but those look like honorifics which one wouldn't apply to oneself. What's happening?

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

    Not sure why "Love you" should be considered any more remarkable than "See you" or "Catch you later".

  17. PeterL said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

    S Frankel: Japanese honorifics are a *lot* more complicated than anything I've seen in a textbook.

    E.g., I've heard competent educated native Japanese speakers use their own first name + "-san" to refer to themselves (more commonly, I've heard them use their own name without any title instead of "I", in an informal setting).

    I've often heard a mother calling herself "o-kaa-san". I think that they're using a "pronoun" from the point of view of the person they're speaking to (e.g., I've heard a woman elementary school teacher use "boku" to a boy, meaning "you") (and, as an amateur linguist, I would treat Japanese "pronouns" more as "nouns", especially as they have a tendency to change radically over the centuries).

  18. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick:

    "Love" has very different weight and connotations than "see" and "catch" — or at least it used to.

  19. DaveK said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 7:03 pm

    I think "I love you light" is the right analysis. It's the verbal equivalent of a peck on the cheek or a quick hug, whereas "I love you" is reserved for a deep romantic embrace.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

    Nicely put, DaveK!

  21. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 9:51 pm

    From Anne Louise Antonoff:

    When Theodore Roosevelt first became president on the assassination of William McKinley, he left his friends aghast after he spent the first White House dinner talking non-stop about himself – "I, I, I," as Henry Adams reported — and even delved into his bloodlines and ethnic heritage. Why a President would do such a thing was bewildering. But he was new to the office, and somewhat stunned to be President in the first place; and he most definitely grew into the job.

  22. j said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

    I am one of the young people in question, and I think DaveK's analysis is spot on. I would comfortably say/write "Love you!" to a close friend (e.g. when saying goodbye), but I wouldn't feel very comfortable saying/writing "I love you" (outside a romantic context) except to family or to friends at very emotional moments. I certainly never write "luv u."

  23. Peter Akuleyev said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 4:56 am

    @Adrian

    "Nem tudom" is not an equivalent example of "I-dropping" because the first person is implicit in the verb ending "-om". In Hungarian it is difficult to construct a null subject sentence because the verb has to conjugate with the subject. The same is true in, for example, Spanish – "No se" vs. "no sabe" vs. "no sabemos". Even in German "weiß nicht" can only be first person or third person, it can't mean "you don't know" or "they don't know". Japanese is an example of a true null subject language – "siranai" can mean "I don't know", "you don't know", "she doesn"t know", "no one knows", etc.

  24. WoD said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 5:26 am

    @ S Frankel

    Yes, those are honorifics, but then, with family names, the forms without honorifics are the most formal, and used with strangers and superiors. Plus, I think what's happening here is you are referring to yourself in the third person, using whatever name the person you are speaking to uses for you. So it's not that you are giving yourself the honorific. Now that I'm thinking about it, I believe some children refer to themselves as xx-chan, even though I've never done so myself.

    I know this probably sounds odd to people who've never witnessed this mode of speaking, And it doesn't happen all the time. The first choice is to always omit personal pronouns whenever possible. And if you are talking to people outside family/close friends, you'd use a first person pronoun, when necessary. (Well, with a few exceptions. I think teachers tend to call themselves "sensei" (teacher) when referring to themselves to their students.)

  25. WoD said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 5:57 am

    @Peter Akuleyev

    ~Japanese is an example of a true null subject language – "siranai" can mean "I don't know", "you don't know", "she doesn"t know", "no one knows", etc.~

    Yes, exactly. I believe Chinese is also the same. "Buzhidao" can mean "I don't know," "you don't know," "she doesn't know," "no one knows," etc.

  26. S Frankel said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 7:45 am

    @WoD and PeterL – thanks for answering my question about Japanese honorifics. I know that in Javanese (in Java; not a misprint), adults will often speak to children in the respectful language that the children are supposed to use, in order to teach the kids the correct way of speaking. This would include using honorifics for oneself. But this is considered a special-purpose use of language.

    On subject dropping: "dunno" in English can only refer to the 1st person singular, I think. (*I asked them what kind of cheese that was, but they said dunno.) Seems to be the same for all the other instances of pronoun dropping.

  27. DaveK said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 8:07 am

    @SFrankel: re: pronoun dropping. In questions, "you" can't be dropped the same way "I" is in statements. ("Don't know? Give up?" Or "getting tired yet?" )

  28. B.Ma said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

    @Michael Watts

    But

    Q: Where did you go?
    A: Went to the store.

    sounds perfectly acceptable in English to me. In Chinese, the "you" in the Q is not necessary either.

  29. David Stinson said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 12:43 am

    I've heard recently that "I love you" is not really a common phrase in Shanghai dialect. The characters are all as one might expect, but the phrase itself sounds awkward somehow. (I didn't ask whether it was the "I" portion specifically.) I'm not sure whether or not that would be relevant in this case.

  30. R. Fenwick said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 1:28 am

    @Michael Watts:

    I see them all as equivalent; I don't think the third provides any particular emphasis on anything.

    Jenny Chu was talking about null-subject, or pro-drop, languages. English is not generally considered to be such a language, so of course the version with the pronoun doesn't include particular emphasis, because it doesn't contrast grammatically with a version that drops the pronoun.

  31. Rodger C said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 6:50 am

    To me, "Went to the store" doesn't sound like an answer to a question, but like something you might write in a note.

  32. Sandra Huang said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    This post is mainly talking about the avoidance of "I" in the daily communications among Chinese people. Not just the avoidance of "I", other pronoun is sometimes omitted in sentences due to the existence of zero anaphora in Chinese. Sentences without subjects are a kind of common and typical sentence pattern. Nowadays, youngsters speak "luv u" and "miss u" to other people and the pronoun–"I" is also omitted. And it's common in the daily conversations.
    In my opinion, there are two aspects to account for the phenomenon of omitting pronouns in Chinese conversations. On the one hand, from the perspective of linguistics, analyzing the feature that Chinese is a parataxis language can help us to try to explain this phenomenon. In Chinese language, people can capture the major meanings even though there are several sentences in a row without any subject. By comparison, English is a hypotaxis language and the sentence structure should be completed and clear. Subject is always needed in English sentence except for the imperative sentences. Therefore, to some extent, it is the unique characteristic of Chinese that allows us to speak without pronouns. Gradually, it is common for us to speak without pronouns for it is brief and convenient when we want to add lots of details in our speaking.
    On the other hand, the characteristics shared by most of Chinese are factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Traditionally, when expressing an opinion, Chinese people have a humble attitude and won't speak in assertiveness. Meanwhile, we can avoid losing face if the opinions we hold are judged wrong. When expressing love or disaffection, people will show an implicit way and avoid directness. The pronoun "I" in a sentence is simply a signal of the speaker itself. Thus, people will omit pronoun to avoid direct expression.
    In conclusion, the linguistic characteristics of Chinese and the typical characteristic of Chinese people shape our habits of omitting pronouns to some extent.

  33. Toby said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

    Interesting conversation. Gay people often pro-drop in English in (for example) work situations to avoid giving away the sex of their partner in "water cooler" conversations about the weekend. Can be quite effective…

  34. Serena Zheng said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    The author said his wife always avoided using the first pronoun for it directly refers to ego and is to be assertive. On this point, I am confused how people can be understood clearly without using the first pronoun although body gestures can deliver messages to others which sometimes would be misunderstood as well.
    The expression of "I" exists in our mind since we are born. It's our instinct. When we are a baby, we just can make the sound like " yi, a, o" . Although we don't speak any words with a verbal language, we deliver the message "I want it" to our parents through gestures. I think ego is human's nature before we learn to share, even for a baby knowing asking things they want through crying, shouting or gesturing though they don't have mind on what it is. Usually, we express likes and dislike to people around us so that they are able to understand our real needs. Without using the first pronoun, it is easy to bring troubles in communication. Take the relationship between parents and children for example. Nowadays, many parents find it hard to please their children while children feel difficulty to communicate with their parents with a generation gap. The way to keep a good relationship is simple, just as listen to and respect children's opinions, but many parents don't give a chance of expressions of "I" to children and offer everything to children expecting them to have good performance on study. But complaints can be heard often from parents that children are unhappy about parents' efforts, even against them. Therefore, the word of "I" plays an important role in communication which makes sure that we are understood by others while others can also be known by us.
    On the other hand, people are emotional and affective and our life is full of those feelings, happiness, anger, sorrow, joy. All these feelings differ from person to person, but only "I" can represent the unique one. We live in a family, a community, a society, not just a single individual in the world, so we need to communicate to others and build relationships to enrich our lives. No matter what group is, everyone is given an equal opportunity to expression of "I". We show abilities and excellent performances to get recognition from others; we exploit potentials to create values. All processes cannot be independent from the word of "I".
    Consequently, the expression of "I" indicates the nature of people and their own recognition. To some extent, I don't think ego is a bad thing, for it brings confidence and aspiration for people to challenge themselves.

  35. S Frankel said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

    @Serena Zheng:

    > To some extent, I don't think ego is a bad thing

    Apologies for what sounds like a cheap shot, but it's not about you. The discussion was about explaining some (other?) Chinese speakers' performance in English. Whether any of us approve of their performance on psychological or moral grounds doesn't really address that issue, I think.

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