Heard on Springer: "my cousin nephew"; "your baby mama"; "Mary, the girl that I watch her kids", etc.

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Tue Nov 25 15:56:54 UTC 2008

On Nov 19, 2008, at 9:22 AM, Wilson Gray wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Heard on Springer: "my cousin nephew"; "your baby
> mama"; "Mary,
>              the girl that I watch her kids", etc.
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Used by two, early-twenties. white people who otherwise spoke an r-ful
> Southern dialect of the "hillbilly" school (the theme of the show is
> "Hot-Headed Hillbillies").
> This is probably not news among the pros in the field, but, for me,
> this is the first time that I've heard these formations used in
> natural speech, not once but several times, with no shifting to "my
> cousin's nephew," etc., by whites who were clearly not whiggers.
> Though Jerry hassled all of them about, e.g. "my cousin nephew"
> ("'Cousin nephew'? What does that mean? Which is it supposed to be:
> your cousin's nephew or your nephew's cousin?") they seemed to be
> completely unaware of what he was driving at.

if i understand these examples correctly, there are two very different
phenomena here.

one is the "zero possessive", as in "my cousin nephew" (standard "my
cousin's nephew"), which we've discussed a number of times here
(though somewhat inconclusively: it's a well-known feature of AAVE,
but is variable for many speakers, and i don't know its geographical
and social distribution, nor do i know any of the details of the
internal factors favoring or impeding it).

the first two examples have zero possessives, but of a somewhat
complex sort: the possessor phrase itself contains a possessive (a
possessive pronoun, in particular), as in [my cousin] [nephew].  this
*might* be a favored environment for a zero possessive; speakers might
think that possession is sufficiently marked by the possessive pronoun.

(as i remarked in earlier discussions, the zero possessive is attested
in british dialects.  the Survey of English Dialects says, "Mainly in
the northern dialects, the possessive singular often takes a zero
ending when one noun qualifies another ..." (p. 483-4).  SED gives
examples, many with possessive pronouns in the possessor phrase, but
some without: "farmer lad" 'farmer's lad'. in the U.S., i'm somewhat
surprised (like Wilson, and, for that matter, Jerry Springer) to hear
zero possessives from white speakers, even rural Southern ones.  but i
don't know what the facts are.)

now "Mary, the girl that I watch her kids" has a possessive pronoun in
it, but otherwise is nothing like the zero possessives.  the point of
interest is the relative clause "that I watch her kids" (modifying
"the girl").  this is a well-known sort of "gapless relative", of a
type that has a resumptive pronoun ("her") instead of a gap.  a gap
would be just ungrammatical in the configuration here; the pronoun
"rescues" an island violation.  some discussion at:

ML, 10/14/07: Ask Language Log: Gapless relatives:
gapped/gapless relatives

AZ, 10/14/07: More gapless relatives:
gapped/gapless relatives

as far as i know, resumptive pronouns rescuing island violations are
not particularly restricted socially or geographically, though they
are most common in speech (where they allow speakers to get out of
tight situations in mid-speech).  they also occur in comic writing,
for humorous effect.

(the standard version of "the girl that I watch her kids" would be
"the girl whose kids I watch" -- with the front-heavy relative clause
"whose kids I watch".  the thing is, this requires a lot of advance
planning; avoiding this planning sets people up to need a resumptive


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