Posted in English

Whose Limb Is It Anyway?

Hardcore grammar today. Strap in.

The book I’m reading has quite a high incidence of a grammatical structure I’ve always found a bit hard to understand. It just looks like a stray indirect object that doesn’t seem to have much purpose in the sentence.

  • Tendo também medo de aranhas(…), lhe pareceu senti-las a passarem-lhe pelo corpo
  • Agarrou-lhe o braço
  • ….O necessário para te limpar a ferida

The third of these looks a bit different because it has “te” instead of “lhe” and it comes before the verb not after (an example of “próclise“) but it’s basically doing the same thing as the lhe in the other two examples. Te and lhe are both indirect objects so they mean “to you” and “to him/her/it” respectively. So if you were to translate the phrases, super-literally into English you’d get absolute monstrosities

  • Being afraid of spiders too, it seemed as if they passed to her over the body
  • It grabbed to him the arm
  • …The things necessary for cleaning to you the injury

There are two unfamiliar things going on here. Firstly, something called “posse inalienável” (inalienable possession) which sounds fancy but it’s not that hard to understand. It just means that the ownership of the object isn’t really in question so you don’t even need to say “my arm”, just “the arm”.

OK, that explains why there’s no possessive pronoun. That’s not the thing I want to focus on today though, so let’s move on to the second point: What’s up with the indirect object? Well, even though you don’t need to say “your arm”, you do still need to say who has been grabbed or cleaned or whatever, so that’s where the indirect object comes in. He grabbed the arm to him. It sounds very weird to anglophone ears but that seems to be what’s going on.

It doesn’t only happen in the context of body parts though. For example, to use an example from the Reddit discussion, “Roubou-me a carteira” is fine, and so are “lê-me um livro” and “faz-me um favor”. Now I don’t know about you, but these three phrases don’t all seem the same to me.

  • Lê-me um livro = Read me a book. That’s completely fine in English. Read the book TO me – >indirect object
  • Faz-me um favor =Do me a favour. Also fine. Do the favour FOR me – > indirect object
  • Roubou-me a carteira is a different kettle of fish though. Treating the indirect object like its English equivalent, I’d translate it as “he stole me the wallet”, implying that I asked someone to steal a wallet on my behalf and they obliged. That’s not how Portuguese works though. Prepositions are all different. It’s legit to say “Roubou a carteira a mim” (He stole the wallet to me). The victim is the recipient of the action even though the thief is the recipient of the wallet. It’s a different way of thinking and I’ll just have to meditate on it a bit and not try and translate it literally in my head.

Another way to look at it would be to think of the indirect object as doing the job of a possessive pronoun. There’s a ciberdúvidas article about this phenomenon here.