The dagnabbit effect strikes again. (Or, when the personal [dative] is political.)

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The following is a guest post by Larry Horn, whose work on personal datives has been discussed on Language Log in the past. (See these posts from late 2009: "On beyond personal datives?," "Horn on personal datives," "Ditransitive prepositions?") It originally appeared on the American Dialect Society mailing list.


Elizabeth Warren is now being mocked left and (mostly) right on social media for her aside during her announcement for the presidency:  "I'm gonna get me a beer".

We're back in John Kerry country again, when the *obviously* elitist Kerry was mocked for his own Personal Dative.  Here's the (right-wing) Washington Times shortly after the event:

Mr. Kerry's Ohio hunting adventure started last Saturday, when the senator, campaign entourage in tow, went into a grocery store and asked the owner: "Can I get me a hunting license here?" Even the phraseology sounded staged. Mr. Kerry ordinarily doesn't talk this way, and his language sounded fake and patronizing — as if he was pretending to talk like someone from rural Ohio. [WT, Oct. 22, 2004]

Kerry was subsequently savaged in numerous gleeful right-wing blogs and columns for his inauthentic modeling of "uneducated redneckese", "hick" or "ignorant" speech, or "dumbed-down grammar". Commentators wondered rhetorically, "Is poor grammar something that amounts to reaching out to them-there dumb, gun-loving right-wing rednecks?"  Kerry was widely portrayed at the time as having asked "Can I get me a huntin' license here?" (and note the comment to this effect in Warner Todd Huston's tweet in Twitterstorm), actual recordings of Kerry's query at the time clearly confirm that he used the upper register velar nasal. In any case, two weeks later Kerry barely lost Ohio to George W. Bush and with it the election.  At least Warren is getting her PD out of the way early, for better or worse.

In a paper I wrote on PDs a while back (you can find the link in this Language Log post by Mark Liberman), I cited the Kerry episode and, along the same lines, the criticism directed at Dan Fogelberg, the Midwestern singer-songwriter, for including this verse in his hit song "Same Old Lang Syne":

She said she'd married her an architect,
Who kept her warm and safe and dry,
She would have liked to say she loved the man,
But she didn't like to lie.

One blogger complained: "Did she really say 'I married me an architect?' Or is Fogelberg, who seems capable of standard usage, the kind of guy who would say, 'Dag nabbit, she up 'n' married her an architect'?" (Still available here.)  Whence "the dagnabbit effect".



29 Comments

  1. maidhc said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 4:50 am

    Obviously Kerry should have first walked into the linguistics department at Ohio State and said "Can I get me a personal dative license here?". Then he would have had him permission to talk like that.

    Dan Fogelberg was from Peoria, Illinois, which has a much larger African-American population than you might think. (Richard Pryor is also from there.) But otherwise much of Illinois outside Chicagoland is part of a speech area that extends southward down toward St. Louis. He attended UIUC, where Chicago meets downstate. He then started working out of Nashville.

    I'd say he came by his personal dative honestly.

    As far as Sen. Warren, I would have thought it should be "Ima get me a beer", but I'm not familiar with how people talk in Massachusetts.

    [(myl) According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Warren "was born Elizabeth Ann Herring in Oklahoma City on June 22, 1949 […] Warren lived in Norman until she was 11 years old, when the family moved to Oklahoma City. […] She also won a debate scholarship to George Washington University (GWU) at the age of 16. She initially aspired to be a teacher, but left GWU after two years in 1968 to marry Jim Warren, whom she met in high school. Elizabeth Warren and her husband moved to Houston, where he was employed by IBM. She enrolled in the University of Houston and graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor of Science degree in speech pathology and audiology."

    She didn't move to Massachusetts until 1995, when she was 56. I'm not sure whether personal datives can be found there — I'm pretty sure that I heard them growing up in Connecticut in the 1950s — but that's not a relevant question in this case.]

  2. Robert L Greene said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:17 am

    What do we call the aspects of a person's linguistic repertoire that are sitting in the background for occasional use? Like Warren I grew up in the south and left and work in a pretty Standard English world. I imagine she's like me in having things "I'm gonna get me a beer" available for comfortable occasional use. For me some of them are pretty frequent (I'd say I use "y'all" almost daily) and some are pretty rare (I don't say things like "Ain't *nobody* drinks a Pepsi when they can have a Coke" very often, but sometimes I do for effect.) I'm not sure if these things make up my idiolect, or what. (I know "code-switching" but I'm just wondering if there's a name for the linguistic items themselves or the register they're a part of.)

  3. mistah charley, ph.d. said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:23 am

    they say, 'what really counts is sincerity – once you can fake that, you've got it made' – maybe she needs a bit more practice

    i was sorry she didn't let us see WHICH beer it was – but of course the people who would've been won over by her choice of that particular beer might well have been outnumbered by the people who would have disliked her for it

  4. Rose Eneri said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:29 am

    I was unaware people criticized Dan Fogelberg's lyrics. Don't we usually afford a fair amount of leeway to lyricists since they must fit the words to the melody, even when they have written both? This song has a very original and evocative lyric. It seems petty to criticize a single word.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    "Well I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer (x2)
    The future's uncertain and the end is always near"

    The prior Larry Horn scholarship discussed in the prior posts mostly concerned genuinely weird-to-many-ears constructions like "I nearly stepped on me a dog" or constructions that have become idiomatic but are hard to figure out how to parse, like "I love[s] me some X." This by constrast is just the extremely widespread usage in many varieties of AmEng of using an oblique-case pronoun such as "me" in a location where standard/prestige AmEng would require the parallel reflexive pronoun such as "myself." Maybe it makes sense to label all these usages as "personal datives," but they seem quite different phenomena to me. No one finds what Sen. Warren said puzzling in general or hard to parse; those reacting negatively just have a strong intuition (correct or otherwise) that it's not a usage that's part of her "real" idiolect even in an informal register, and is thus a faux-folksy affectation.

    I wouldn't be surprised if the "get me a beer" construction was common in the idiolects of many Oklahoma-born white women of her age — whether she has or hasn't retained any features like that in her own informal-register usage over the lengthy life arc that plausibly made her speech largely assimilate to different region/class norms (starting but not ending with the fact that the sort of 16-year-old Oklahoma girls who won scholarships to private colleges back east back in the old days may well have self-consciously scrubbed their usage of any "tells" of rustic origin so thoroughly they can't revert in later life without sounding affected) is an empirical question that I don't know the answer to. If someone has access to transcripts or recordings of her talking in naturally informal-register contexts that were not so political as to incentivize feigned or self-conscious folksiness, that question could be investigated.

    My mild inference from the Doors lyrics I quoted above, fwiw, is that for most AmEng speakers a "me" in "get/got [me/myself] a beer" is not actually obligatory even in informal-register contexts where there is some affirmative social need not to sound all stuck-up and hoity-toity, i.e. the reflexive is not marked (at least not very strongly) as formal-register-only or "talking like a book," and if she'd said "myself" she could avoid avoided this particular kerfuffle.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 11:00 am

    But while we're on the subject of personal datives and blues-style lyrics, I hereby pre-commit my public support to the first presidential contender who can work this magnificently threatening quatrain (attr. J.L. Pierce, 1958-1996) into a stump speech:

    "Gonna buy me a graveyard of my own
    Kill everyone who ever done me wrong
    Gonna buy me a gun just as long as my arm
    Kill everyone who ever done me harm"

    (FWIW, I think "myself" would not have been unacceptably unidiomatic in those lines, but "me" is preferable on metrical grounds.)

  7. Ellen K. said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 11:06 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    "buy me" also parallels with "done me", which would be lost if it was "buy myself".

  8. JonathanZ said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    "Beer me that disc."
    – Andy Bernard, The Office

  9. file said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 12:34 pm

    The whole kerfuffle seems strange to me on this side of the Atlantic. Well-educated politicians here (of which there are some) will regularly use ungrammatical idiomatic expressions such as, 'You ain't seen nothing yet,' without the consequent twisting of anyone's knickers.

  10. Brett said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

    @file: It really depends on the politician, whether this kind thing is noticed. "You ain't seen nothing yet," would be unobjectionable from almost anyone, maybe even John Kerry. On the other hand, "get me a hunting license" just sounds fake and affected coming from Kerry; it is just too clearly not part of his natural speech. It wouldn't work for me either.

  11. Ellen K. said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 3:09 pm

    The thing with "You ain't seen nothing yet" and "get me a hunting license" isn't that they aren't grammatical. They are. It's about register and dialect. What register/dialect they are a part of. "Ain't", it seems to me, is a part of most dialects, though not all registers. Whereas the "get me" construction is dialectal.

  12. Bloix said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 3:12 pm

    From someone like Warren, who's moved way up in the world from modest roots, "Gonna get me a beer" is humorous – it acknowledges that beer is low-status drink.
    But last night on Rachel Maddow's show, in discussing Republican congressmembers' inability to stand up to Trump, Warren said, "they don't know sic 'em from come 'ere."
    This is an honest-to-god hick expression – see this 1993 William Safire article (citing DARE, which I don't have access to), https://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/13/magazine/on-language-sic-em.html.
    It means that a person is as useless as an untrained hound dog.
    And it's rare enough that it's very unlikely that Warren was faking when she used it. Although she's been at Harvard a long time, in some ways she's still an Oklahoman.

  13. David L said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 3:29 pm

    Well, she done got herself mah vote.

  14. David Morris said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 4:42 pm

    Non-USAn here.

    1) Is this her natural idiom, or was she affecting folksiness?
    2) Why is "I'm going to/gonna/etc get *you* a beer?" standard and "I'm going to/gonna get *me* a beer" isn't?
    3) I assume that "gonna" is standard.

  15. RfP said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 8:07 pm

    @David Morris:

    1) Is this her natural idiom, or was she affecting folksiness?

    Yes.

    It's interesting to think of this discussion in light of Victor's posts about Xi Jinping, who is mocked for being uppity, so to speak, while Elizabeth Warren is mocked, I assume, for being patronizing or condescending.

    Any politician of Warren's skill as a public speaker is highly unlikely to be folksy when they think they need to be formal, and vice versa. And it seems to me that she has the "right" to speak in the idiom she "comes from" to some extent. But if this type of informality doesn't grow out of her daily lexicon—especially "at the office," as opposed to "at home"—if she never speaks this way to her aides or in private negotiating sessions with colleagues, for example—then it smacks of inauthenticity and therefore of posturing, which I think is the core issue for those who are mocking both her and Xi, whether or not the criticism has merit in either case.

    Speaking from personal experience, I was a musician when I was young and was heavily influenced by African-American English, although I am white (and a USAn), and grew up in an affluent suburb rather than in the urban core. There are lots of expressions I use at home (and in my head!) that would sound patronizing if I used them in public, even though my biracial daughter really appreciates that we "speak the same language." But she hears it all from me, from the sesquipedalian all the way down to "the street level," and from "about those dishes you didn't do last night…" to pretty deep discussions about Ferguson, or what it was like to have a "brother" in the White House—so she knows that's just who I am.

    Others who don't have that insight would be justified in assuming that I might be speaking that way artificially, especially given my formal speech patterns. And in fact, to some extent, I probably would be, if I spoke that way around people who don't know me well, because I know there are conventions about all of this and it seems proper to speak "appropriately" unless there is good reason not to. The big question is where exactly that line of appropriateness should be drawn.

    It will be interesting to see how Warren carries herself in this regard over the next couple of years—and how that does or does not fly with the electorate.

  16. RfP said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 8:16 pm

    Just to be clear, I'm referring to my step-daughter. I was "adopted" by her and her white mom…

  17. JPL said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 8:18 pm

    Before I read (that's "reed", not "red") the Larry Horn article, which looks very interesting and thorough, I just wanted to record an observation that struck me about this "personal dative" phenomenon, and looking at Horn's intro, he may already have made this observation ("PD pronominals are not objects of their verbs; they are non-arguments coreferring with the subject." (p.173)), and that is that, unlike reflexive pronouns occurring in indirect object constructions or in object position ("I bought myself a sewing machine"; "Joe cut himself"), the "PD" pronoun in a sentence like "I'm gonna get me a beer" does not fill a separate role in the propositional structure (syntactic role, "theta"- role, etc.), but belongs to the subject NP (the agent role in a transitive clause), so it would seem that to label it as "dative" would not be accurate. It seems to function more like an intensifier, indicating that the agent performs the action for self-benefit (so you would not expect something like, "I'm gonna clean me that toilet" or, "I'm gonna unclog me your toilet"). It's reflexive in that the PD is referentially identical with the head of the subject NP, but it adds a nuance to the agent NP rather than filling a separate role in the propositional function, which the "-self" pronoun would indicate. There are cases such as, "I myself am gonna get a beer" or the contrastive topic case, "Me I'm gonna get a beer". There's a difference between the "purposeful action with reflexive benefit" sense and the sense of the distinct syntactic role of "dative" or "benefactive", although what exactly the difference is perhaps remains to be clarified.

  18. JPL said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 4:17 am

    Or alternatively, since the expression of the "PD" is post-verbal, the "reflexive benefit" sense could be regarded as more closely related to the verbal element, as with adverbials. In any case, it is not filling a core propositional term, but is dependent on the "agent-action" level of relation. (As Horn says, the PD nominal can't have contrastive stress without changing the original sense.)

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 9:23 am

    Contra JPL, I see no difference at all between "I bought me/myself a sewing machine" and "I got me/myself a beer." In both instances you can omit the reflexive (or its substitute) pronoun without changing the meaning (for some values of "meaning" …) because there's at least a mild default inference that the "beneficiary" or "recipient" of the buying/getting is the buyer/getter unless otherwise specified, unlike "I bought/got her a sewing-machine/beer" where the beneficiary/recipient must be made explicit. Maybe that means there's often some intensifier effect when you make the implicit explicit in the reflexive ("coreferring") situation, but that would be equally true for both instances.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

    Looking at the beginning of the linked paper by Larry Horn (Lawrence R. Horn), the following caught my attention:

    "I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter."
    and the PD counterpart:
    "I'm gonna write me a letter."

    I notice how the two mean very different things. The first, the person is writing a letter addressed to himself. (And, since it's a quote from a song, we can confirm that from context.)

    Whereas, if I heard the latter, I would assume that the letter is addressed to someone else (as most letters are) but that the "me" indicates some sort of benefit to him. The "me", unlike "myself", could not be used to indicate that he is the recipient of the letter he is going to write.

  21. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 3:15 pm

    @JPL: "unlike reflexive pronouns occurring in indirect object constructions or in object position ("I bought myself a sewing machine"; "Joe cut himself"), the "PD" pronoun in a sentence like "I'm gonna get me a beer" does not fill a separate role in the propositional structure (syntactic role, "theta"- role, etc.), but belongs to the subject NP (the agent role in a transitive clause), so it would seem that to label it as "dative" would not be accurate."

    @J.W. Brewer: "Contra JPL, I see no difference at all between "I bought me/myself a sewing machine" and "I got me/myself a beer.""

    I was gonna say the same thing as J.W.!

    @Ellen K.: "Looking at the beginning of the linked paper by Larry Horn (Lawrence R. Horn), the following caught my attention"

    Oooh, I hadn't considered that, but you're absolutely right. Is that what JPL was talking about above?

  22. JPL said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 8:37 pm

    @Michele:

    That's right. The difference between the PD case and the indirect object case (with reflexive pronoun or non-reflexive w/ contrastive stress) is in the specificity of the sense of "with agent reflexive benefit", in particular the central feature of reflexivity, in the PD case. Ellen K.'s example is a good one (I missed the example in the Horn article), and you can get the same effect with the contrastive stress: "Now I'm gonna write ME a letter". The sense of "beneficiary" or "recipient" associated with the dative case role as a major term in the propositional function is more general and has in fact a more inclusive categorical structure, including non-reflexive cases. (This could be given a fuller description.) The sense in the PD case is more like a nuance in the description of a purposeful action.

  23. Doug said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 9:43 am

    RfP said:
    "@David Morris:

    1) Is this her natural idiom, or was she affecting folksiness?

    Yes."

    ? Is that:
    (A) "Yes, it's her natural idiom"
    or
    (B) "Yes, she was affecting folksiness"
    or
    (C) "Yes, it's both" ?

  24. Trogluddite said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 11:21 am

    Affecting folksiness to signal "I'm off duty now" when fetching a beer doesn't seem particularly unusual to me (though not necessarily lacking an element of deception or of being patronising.) Here in Yorkshire, I hear plenty of "offcomed'uns" (folk not native to Yorkshire) or usually soft-accented Tykes (folk who are) who might indicate that they'd like to share a drink with an exaggerated "'stha comin' t'pub wi'us" or who would describe themselves as "bahn oom" after they've drunk their fill. No PD there, of course, but such affectations do invoke what are the last remnants of the T-V distinction and singular "us" for many people.

  25. Sam said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

    @Doug,

    Responding with "Yes" to queries like that is now a thing. See http://reddit.com/r/inclusiveor

  26. RfP said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 3:47 pm

    @Doug
    I meant, yes, it's both. Sorry for the lack of clarity!

  27. Christy Goldfinch said,

    January 9, 2019 @ 8:06 pm

    Some of the New Orleans subdialects (including mine, when speaking informally or tipsy) employ what my 8th-grade English teacher categorized as an "intensive reflexive dative." Ex: "You're going to Tipitina's tonight? I'm going to Check Point Charlie's, me." According to her this grammar comes from French-influenced Cajun English; it is not (in my listening experience) common among AAVE speakers here.

  28. Rodger C said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 8:06 am

    I'm puzzled as to why "me" in that sentence should be called a dative.

  29. Trogluddite said,

    January 10, 2019 @ 11:12 am

    @Christy Goldfinch.
    Using that construction for emphasis is perfectly idiomatic in most BrE dialects, as far as I can tell (likewise the non-reflexive form.) I'm a little dubious about your teacher's assertion that it derives from Cajun French, me.

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