Dualities in Grammar

So another weird little thing about grammar is dualities. I’ll limit this to English and Latin, but they’re everywhere.

In English/Latin, the genitive case represents both connection and possession. So if you’re talking about a thing you own, you use the genitive. This is my toaster. But you do the same thing addressing a noun that exists in relation to something else, such as a parent.

This is my parent.

Likewise, nouns that can exist in relation to another word have that relation disclosed by the genitive.

This is my child. This is my boss. This is my employee.

But these constructions cannot take both meanings, as even if you could own an employee, you could not then own your boss. Ownership goes one way, so it can’t be both. But the grammar is the same, because genitive does both ownership and relationship.

Now the conjunction of ownership and relationship is an interesting one and worth thinking about, but the practical concern that there’s only one case for both purposes is somewhat simpler.

Likewise, apologizing has two purposes. One is to take responsibility for the suffering of others, acknowledge it, and affirm you’re not going to cause it again, and another is merely acknowledgement. The latter does have a little bit of ‘I support your suffering,’ but it’s mostly acknowledgement.

I was walking along and saw a bit of a gathering on the street, so walked over to see what was going on. A guy said his brother-in-law had just died, and they were having a gathering in his honor. It was outdoors because of Covid. I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

Obviously I didn’t kill his brother-in-law, but apologizing has that clumsy duality.

What makes that one work is that the guy was in that headspace, so he got it immediately. He understood. Me, not being in the headspace, felt the alienation of suddenly being immersed in it. So I felt like an outsider, but he felt like some polite stranger was trying to be respectful.

A few takeaway points of that:
1) People generally think better of you than you might expect. If you’re polite and there’s an obvious polite meaning, people will often default to that one.
2) Some senses of alienation don’t really exist. You may feel alienated from people, but often that’s alienation to a strange setting.
Both 1 and 2 tend to imply things aren’t as bad as they feel.

And to tie that back to dualities in grammar, those confusions are inescapable in human interactions.

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