Robert and Christina Have a Baby: Announcing Marcus Omer

Week Six Update | Birth Certificate Fun | Linguistic Ruminations | Quotable Quotes

Linguistic Ruminations (Morphological, Syntactic, and Semantic in Nature)

Fun with Allomorphs!

Christina’s fun fact of the week: As a family, Robert, Marcus, and I represent all three allomorphs of the regular possessive noun ending in English. Who says we don't plan things perfectly?

"Nurse" (v)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word nurse, since, you know, that’s what I spend vast portions of my day doing. Nurse is such an interesting word.

Let’s set aside all non-verbal uses of nurse for now:

  1. The nurses threatened to strike if their overtime wages weren’t raised.

Also set aside nurse as a verb but with other meanings:

  1. He nursed his mother through her last bout with cancer.
  2. She nursed a cold all that weekend but felt better on Monday.
  3. They nursed a grudge against the other team ever since their first loss.

That leaves us of course with the verb nurse in the meaning most relevant to my life now, but even there we have fascinating distinctions.

There’s nurse as an intransitive verb (interestingly, both of the separate meanings above are transitive, with either a person or an illness as the direct object):

  1. The baby nursed for forty-five minutes at a stretch last night.

In this sense, the baby is the subject, and fed or ate could substitute for nursed without making any other changes to the sentence.

I think we can also at least try to use nurse intransitively, but with the mother as the subject, though it feels a little less acceptable to me:

  1. ? I nursed five times since lunch.

This sentence is at best ambiguous (is it the mother? is it the baby), but if we assume the subject to be the mother, then there has to be an implied him, or the baby, in this sentence. You can’t substitute any single (also intransitive) verb for nursed in this sentence; everything that would make sense semantically here would require an explicitly stated direct object. When you stick with the verb nursed but make him or the baby explicit, though, the original sentence becomes both completely acceptable to my ears and also transitive again:

  1. I nursed him five times since lunch.

I’m not sure, therefore that the mother can really be the subject with nurse as an intransitive verb.

Note that in the sentence above, though, you can substitute fed perfectly for nursed. Of course, the verb feed in different sentences can also be either intransitive or transitive and can also flip from having the baby as the subject one way to the mother as the subject the other way, but I think feed is more limited as a verb than nurse. Interestingly, you can use nurse intransitively but with both mother and baby, combined, as the subject:

  1. They nursed together on the bed before the baby’s nap.
  2. We nursed in the back of the Sunday School class last week.

Those uses are completely acceptable to me; the compound subject definitely comes from a certain philosophical world (one which talks about the nursing relationship to describe mother and baby, etc.) but is still fully understandable and also unambiguous here. The verb nurse in these sentences has a very specific and narrow meaning, though, and you can’t substitute any verb at all for nursed in these sentences and still preserve the same meaning:

  1. ? They fed together on the bed before the baby’s nap.
  2. We ate in the back of the Sunday School class last week.

These are strange sentences, at best, with unclear subjects (though using fed gets us both closer to the intended meaning and further from any logical sense). Who exactly is feeding, or eating, in these sentences? It’s very hard to make sense of them in this context.

That leaves us, then, with these sentences using nurse as a verb in this more straightforward sense:

  1. I nursed him before we left for the library.
  2. ? He was nursed (by me) before we left for the library.
  3. He nursed before we left for the library.

Sentence 12 above has a transitive verb nursed, mother as the subject, baby as the object, and active; sentence 13 also has a transitive verb nursed, mother as the subject, baby as the object, but passive; sentence 14 has an intransitive verb nursed, baby as the subject, mother not mentioned, and active (obviously). The passive construction in sentence 13 sounds funny to me: basically acceptable, but very rare—I suspect because we have a perfectly good active construction to substitute for it exactly in meaning (i.e., sentence 14). Strangely, if you substitute feed for nurse in these sentences, all sound completely acceptable to me:

  1. I fed him before we left for the library.
  2. He was fed (by me) before we left for the library.
  3. He fed before we left for the library.

I suppose that because nurse is again more narrow in its meaning than feed the passive with it feels strange, whereas the passive with feed (in sentence 16) seems perfectly fine and even fairly common.

I’m not sure where all that leaves us. Certainly feed has connotations both of animals (if used transitively)—

  1. I fed the cat before we left for the library.
  2. The cat was fed (by me) before we left for the library.

—and of vampires, interestingly (if used in a phrasal construction):

  1. The female vampire fed on Riley multiple times.

Those two non-human senses of feed make it somewhat less intimate to use as a substitute for nurse: syntactically you can do it, of course, but you lose the particular sense of mother and baby that nurse implies. And eat, which we can use intransitively with the baby as the subject, is also far too general to convey anything specific about breastfeeding:

  1. He ate before we left for the library.

This sentence could have the baby as the subject, or the nursing mother’s husband, father, brother (or even male cat), etc. There’s also no sense in which what the baby (if we take him to be the subject here) is eating in this sentence—breastmilk, formula, solid food, or some combination of those would all fit logically into the semantic world of this sentence.

All of this leaves me back with the idea that nurse is a very interesting verb. In fact, the power, specificity, and intimacy of it are a little frightening to me. I think the power of nurse as a verb in this sense is its attraction, though. Interestingly, you can substitute breastfeed for nurse in all contexts except with the compound subject, but I don’t think this buys you very much:

  1. The baby breastfed for forty-five minutes at a stretch last night.
  2. I breastfed him five times since lunch.
  3. The baby was breastfed before we left for the library.
  4. ? They breastfed together on the bed before the baby’s nap.
  5. ? We breastfed in the back of the Sunday School class last week.

You can do intransitive, active, baby as the subject (sentence 22); transitive, active, mother as the subject (sentence 23); and transitive, passive (sentence 24). Sentences 25 and 26 would work if two breastfeeding mothers were the subject, nursing their separate babies, but not with mother and baby as a combined subject.

Semantically, breastfeed feels more clinical, more biological, and less intimate (even though it’s naming the taboo body part explicitly, it’s only to distinguish the breast from the bottle—of formula, by implication) than nurse, with its connotations of taking care of someone (as in sentence 2 again). Still, they work as substitutes for each other syntactically in sentences 22-24.

One other interesting shade of meaning (which works both with the mother or the baby as the subject and with both nurse or breastfeed as the verb) comes to mind here:

  1. She breastfed/nursed him (exclusively) for six months.
  2. He breastfed/nursed (exclusively)  for six months.

Here’s the specificity, again—the way in which the verbs actually specify what the mother is baby is eating. Note that we can’t really use this particular meaning, though (this “exclusive” sense) with the combined mother-baby subject:

  1. ? We breastfed/nursed (exclusively) for six months.

The only way sentence 29 can be understood is if the subject isn’t really the mother and baby together but rather is some sort of (semi-)“royal we” subject in which the mother is speaking but really implicating the baby as the subject (i.e., giving the same meaning as sentence 28).

Clearly substituting a more generic verb in any of these sentences, though (27-28) would be meaningless:

  1. She fed him (exclusively) for six months.
  2. He ate (exclusively) for six months.

This “exclusive” sense, therefore, gets more closely at what is special (and scary) about the word nurse. Words like feed and eat feel safer in their generic, unparticular usage; saying nurse feels like it’s making public an incredibly intimate care-giving act, and saying breastfeed feels like it’s making a political statement (again, breast vs. bottle/formula). Maybe that’s why those “nursing covers” (blanket-type things that cover the baby and the mother’s breast, usually hooking around the mother’s neck) go by such horrific brand names (“Hooter Hider,” “Slurp and Burp,” and so on), generally avoiding the word nurse itself (and God forbid the word breast, since the body part itself, by implication of these products, is so objectionable that you have to “hide” it physically just as the word hides under layers of euphemism).

Anne Lamott, writing about the experience of nursing her son, says that nursing "is the easiest, purest communication [she's] ever known." I like that thought—nursing (the act, the verb, the connotations) is intimate, care-giving, and communicative.


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Created: 10/5/08. Last Modified: 10/5/08.