"baby mama" does not mean what they thought it means

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Apr 30 20:35:41 UTC 2008

On Apr 30, 2008, at 7:56 AM, Marc Velasco wrote:

> So it seems semantically settled.
> But what about construction?
> Baby mama is derived from the possessive "baby's mama" no?

well, it corresponds to standard "baby's mama".  there's probably
nothing to be gained by seeing  a possessor NP like "baby" in "baby
mama" as synchronically derived from possessor NP+'s.  you could just
as easily argue that the derivation goes in the opposite direction,
with possessor NP+'s derived from bare possessor NP by the addition of
a suffix.  what i think is the right way to compare the grammars is
just to see them as having different ways for expressing a syntactic
relationship -- in this case, the relationship between an NP
determiner and the head N of the whole NP (= NP + N).

the standard possessor marking is *explicit*, with an explicit mark on
the dependent constituent; this is in an important sense *redundant*,
since the relationship between the possessor and the head is already
conveyed by their combination within a larger NP and by their
ordering.  bare possessor marking is *implicit*, with only structure/
ordering as a sign of the relationship.  (alternation between explicit
and implicit marking is found all over language.  yes, i have yet
another Language Log posting in preparation on the phenomenon.)

sometimes one language variety has explicit marking for a certain
relationship where another variety has implicit marking for that
relationship.  sometimes both schemes of marking for that relationship
are alternatives within a variety.

you can't predict what the sociolinguistic status of the explicitly
and implicitly marked variants will be in these cases.  for english
possessor NPs, the explicit variant is standard and the implicit
variant non-standard, but things are different in other cases, and
there are even cases where the variants don't seem to be distinguished
sociolinguistically, but simply have different virtues for the
purposes of language production and/or perception (see the gigantic
literature on "that" ~ zero alternations in complement and relative

seeing these things as just a choice of variant (between varieties or
within varieties) allows you escape from the nasty concomitants of
seeing one variant as derived from the other, in particular the
attribution of psychological reality to the derivational process.  if
you see non-standard variants as derived from standard ones (by
deletion, in the possessor determiner case), then you can end up
believing that non-standard speakers actually have the standard
variants in their heads but fail to produce them through some sort of
fault in production (laziness is often cited).  (derivational
terminology often hangs on, though, even for people who very much do
not subscribe to the psychological reality of derivation.  i, for
example, am a scholar of "auxiliary reduction" in english, and i'm
sort of stuck with the term, even though i don't treat contracted, or
clitic, auxiliaries as literally reductions of the full forms.)

> Are there similar terms with like construction, where a possessive has
> been dropped to create something like a compound word?

bare possessors are widespread in a number of non-standard english
varieties, including AAVE and some rural british dialects.  they've
been studied pretty extensively in AAVE.  "baby mama" is just an
instance of this wider phenomenon which happens to have become
formulaic, specialized in meaning and use.

NPs with bare possessor determiners only happen to resemble compound
nouns; they are not compounds.  if you speak a variety with bare
possessors, then "my mama chair" is ambiguous, between a structure
with a  noun-noun compound in it ("my [mama chair]"), shared with
standard english ("This is my mama chair; I sit in it to nurse the
baby"), and a determiner-head structure "[my mama] chair" that
corresponds to standard english "my mama's chair". (the two structures
are usually associated with different accent patterns, by the way.)

> Is there a name for this grammatical construction?

no fixed term that's generally used, so far as i can tell: "genitive -
s omission" and variants of this (all incorporating derivational
terminology), "unmarked possessive" and other variants, etc.


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