Saturday, August 21, 2010

My computer

Over at Not Always Right one contributor recounted a humorous tech support tale about a customer who didn't understand the command "double-click on My Computer": "How can I click on your computer? You must be thousands of miles away!" Besides the obvious humor of misinterpretation (easily understood for the technologically illiterate, since the PC standard system icon "My Computer" co-opted a regularly occurring noun phrase), there's an interesting issue about prosody.

For me, "double-click on my computer" and "double-click on My Computer" are not pronounced identically. My guess is that this is true for the majority of English speakers, or at least native ones (feel free to submit dissenting opinions below). Because "my" is a functional morpheme indicating possession, it often ends up cliticized onto the noun it modifies. While many speakers have the full [maj] in careful speech, rapid speech will often produce simply unstressed [mə] in many dialects. In many languages this reduction has gone a step further, so that the possessive morpheme is now phonologically and morphologically bound to the noun in question. In my own speech, this destressing is realized by "my" getting only secondary stress, rather than primary stress, in a sentence like "double-click on my computer". On the other hand, when we're talking about "My Computer" qua shortcut to hard drive contents in Windows systems, the otherwise identical phrase takes on a new life. "My" is no longer just a clitic. In my own speech this is realized as primary stress on both "my" and the second syllable in "computer".

The presence of absence of destressing in certain words can thus give us clues to meaning and the parsing of certain phrases. For instance, if I'm on the phone with tech support and they tell me to double-click on jɔɹ mjuzɪk, I'm going to assume that there's some specific system folder I'm unaware of that's labeled "Your Music", whereas if they tell me to double-click on jɹ̩ mjuzɪk, I'm going to assume they want me to open the folder where I keep my music.


Anonymous said...

Incidentally, starting from Windows Vista, the icon is no longer called "My Computer" but simply "Computer" (same story for "My Documents", "My Pictures" etc). I wonder if there is any linguistic reason behind this decision.

Crystal said...

Interesting stuff!

I can't reproduce the shortening of "my" but your point was illuminated with the "your" example.

To extend from Anon's comment, it could be a linguistic reason but I think it is more likely a semantic reason. If there is one computer in a household of 4 people, chances are they may share the folders rather than create separate users. Therefore, the possessor is inaccurate if everyone is putting music into the "My Music" folder. It's more like the "Everyone Who Contributes's Music" folder. ;)

So, by removing these possessors, we get a more general title, which is better, I think, in the long run.

I blog about linguistics too. I did a google search and you popped up so I hope you don't mind if I add you to my blogroll. :)

Jeff said...

I also pronounce that distinction. I wonder if it has anything to do with capitalization. When I read a capitalized pronoun referring to God, I always mentally add a bit of emphasis. (I have no idea whether you're supposed to; maybe someone with a more religious upbringing can clue me in.)