Belated reply re: "the" wife

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Sat Nov 6 17:37:25 UTC 1999


Inalienable possession moved to people! Note the variation in "How's
the/your hand?" in doctor talk. (Of course, since both are grammatical, the
variation is everything.)


>Someone writes:
><<Yesterday our laminate installer said he'd be on the job today "as soon as
>the wife leaves for work." "The wife" has been around for a long time, but
>has anyone ever heard "the husband" used the same way?>>
>In a recording I made (sociolinguistic interview) I hear the following:
>"The husband and daughter has a rabbit project up on the hill. How many's up
>there, I don't know. I don't go up there. That's thars."
>The recording was made in 1974 in the kitchen of the speaker's farm house
>about 30 miles south of Asheville, NC. The speaker had lived in that same
>county in NC all her life. This is the first reference in the conversation to
>her husband and her daughter, so the "the" is not anaphoric. She only had one
>daughter--and the use of "the" rather than "my" actually impliess that,
>doesn't it?
>Isn't this just the same sort of thing that one gets in an utterance such as
>(I'm making this up), e.g., "I ws in a strange city and I went into a church.
>The priest was an old man." This implies, to me, that there is only one
>priest. For most most Americans, "the wife" and "the husband" are like "the
>living room"--we only have one of them, and if we have lived with them for
>quite a while, they become unique fictures of our environment. This is why
>the Southernism "He's still in the bed" sounds so weird to me--seems to my
>Yankee ears to imply that the house has only one bed. (But cf. American "He's
>in the hospital.)

Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics and Languages
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824-1027 USA
preston at
Office: (517)353-0740
Fax: (517)432-2736

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