Amongst the first snippets of foreign language we learn are often those expressing everyday emotional connection. The language of missing is usually somewhere in the mix.
There’s quite an interesting split in how languages express I miss you. I spot two big camps, although there are more for sure. The first of these two biggies has the person doing the missing as the subject of the active verb:
|English||I miss you|
|German||ich vermisse dich|
|Icelandic||ég sakna þín|
|Polish||tęsknię za tobą|
|Spanish||te echo de menos|
But in the second camp, the person being missed is the active subject. The person feeling the absence will be in an oblique or dative case:
|French||tu me manques|
|Greek||μου λείπεις (mou lípis)|
|Hungarian||hiányzol ‘you are missing’ – the ‘me’ is understood|
Who’s Missing Whom?
The split is primarily a semantic one, with verbs tending to express either the emotional work of missing, or the state of being missing or absent. Some languages, of course, use totally different constructions, like the idiomatic Spanish echar de menos, although the doer here is still clear: it’s the person doing the missing. The same goes for other languages that use completely different constructions, like Japanese and Korean, which commonly use some version of I want to see you.
The dividing lines are most interesting because they don’t necessarily follow language family groups. Romance, Finno-Ugric and Slavic languages straddle both tables. There’s some evidence of the Balkan sprachbund in the second table, perhaps, but it seems largely chance which kind of phrasing a language ends up on.
Whether it is chance or not is hard to say. Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear that many linguists have attempted to answer that question, since a literature search turns up very little. Does anything in particular prompt a language to drift towards the ‘active misser’ or ‘active missed’ route? Is it a cultural difference? And could the construction even impact how we think of missing itself, or is it a chance mapping of syntax onto feelings?
For now, then, it’s just another of those little quirks we have to register when we learn a new foreign language. Perhaps more fundamentally, it’s simply another hue or picture setting to marvel at in the human kaleidoscope of modes of expression.
Have you come across other configurations in the typology of “I miss you”? And do you have your own inklings around an explanation? Let us know in the comments!