Seeking your linguistic intuitions!

Are you a fluent speaker in a language other than English? If so, may I ask for your intuitions on a linguistic matter, please?

In English, if someone says, ‘I injured a leg’, we would take them to mean that they had injured one of their own legs. Similarly, if they say they injured a finger, a toe, an ear, etc. But if they say, ‘I injured a nose’, we would take them to mean that they had injured someone else’s nose—not their own. Similarly, for a head, a heart, a chin, etc.

In short, in English, when someone refers to a body part in this way, if the speaker has more than one of the body parts in question, then we take them to mean that it was their own. But if the speaker has only one of those body parts, then we take them to mean that it was someone else’s. (At least, that’s my intuition; if you don’t share it, please post a comment saying so!)

My question is, Does the same apply in other languages? If the sentences in bold above were translated into your language (in the most natural way), would the same principle hold? That is, would ‘an X’ imply ‘my X’ if the speaker has more than more than one X, but ‘someone else’s X’ if the speaker has only one X?

All I need is a Yes or No, but if you would like to add any comments or thoughts, that would be great.

Thanks!

10 comments to Seeking your linguistic intuitions!

  • Theodora

    This isn’t the case in French — you would use a reflexive verb to specify if it’s something you did to yourself or to someone else.

    Examples:

    I injured a (i.e. my) leg: Je ME suis blessé la jambe.
    I injured a (i.e. his) nose: Je LUI ai blessé le nez.

    In the first example, the verb is the reflexive form “se blesser”.

    In the second example, the verb is the transitive form “blesser”.

    (I’m trying to think of an example where there’s no reflexive form of the verb, but I can’t find one right now. However, I assume that if there is one, you’d use a possessive to clarify whose leg/nose you’re talking about. If I have a flash of genius I’ll let you know!)

  • Michael

    In German it’s a bit ambiguous. It would be correct to specify whose leg:

    I injured a leg – Ich habe … das Bein verletzt
    (myself) – Ich habe mir das Bein verletzt
    (somebody) – Ich habe sein (OR: ihm das) Bein verletzt

    People leave out words in spoken language, so I would understand “Ich hab das Bein verletzt” (without a context about somebody else’s leg) as referring to the leg of the speaker. It’s the same for the nose. But thats a matter of context.

  • Carlo

    In Italian, in short: No.

    Italian is very much like French:

    I injured a (i.e. my) leg: MI sono fatto male a una gamba.
    I injured a (i.e. his) nose: GLI ho fatto male al naso.

  • Claire

    No. I think English is one of the few languages that applies such context.

  • Shen

    In Chinese, in short: No.

    In Chinese, one almost never refers to one’s own, say, leg, as “a leg” [一条腿] ; rather, the more natural way of saying it would be “my (own) leg” [我的腿]。

  • Shen

    (I could be off on this, but in English when the speaker says “I injured an arm” doesn’t the speaker also refer to their own arm?)

  • tak

    In Japanese, no.
    Such X’s always refer to the speaker’s own body parts. And indeed the number is irrelevant for us because there is no singular/plural distinction in Japanese nouns.

  • It is not as clear in Amharic (Ethiopian). The nouns leg, nose, or any other body parts (in fact, this is common with Amharic nouns – would also have possessions) would usually indicate whose leg, nose, etc. For ex, “egren” = my leg, “egrun” = his leg or “egruan” = her leg. So in order for the translation “I injured a leg” into Amharic to make sense, it would necessarily include whose leg it is that is being talked about which means context or some sort of clue is necessary to meaningfully translate the above two sentences. In short, meaningfully translating the above sentences into Amharic necessarily also needs indicating possessor and neither ‘I injured a leg’ nor ‘I injured a nose’ would imply whether it is my own or someone else’s. I don’t know if this is of any help …

  • photisss

    In Dutch you would use 2 different verbs, depending on whether you injured your own (bezeren) or somebody else’s (verwonden) body part.

    Regardless, if you would have injured one of your own body parts of which you have two, you could used the indefinite article (“ik heb een been bezeerd”), when it’s a unique body part you would use the possessive pronoun (“ik heb mijn neus bezeerd”). This would also always sound correct in the first case (“ik heb mijn been bezeerd”), while in the second case the opposite is never true (“ik heb een neus bezeerd” sounds very wrong).

    When injuring someone else, it would sound strange when using the indefinite article instead of the possessive pronoun. If you want to keep it vague/undetermined/unspecified you would say “Ik heb IEMAND’S rug verwond”, not “ik heb EEN rug verwond”.

    Disclaimer: being Flemish I might have a different perspective than a Dutch person (inhabitant of The Netherlands) although we speak/write/read the same language.

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