Antje (dieastra) wrote in linguaphiles,

"Doctor" and "baby" without noun markers

Hi, I'm from Germany and I am wondering about something that I recently repeatedly encounter in the British TV series "Call the midwife" (which is set in London in the 1950s if that is important).

I am pharaphrasing here, but there are often sentences spoken by the nurses and sisters which go like "I'll call doctor and he'll check whether baby is okay."

For me this sounds odd, as I would say "I call THE doctor so he can make sure YOUR baby is okay." Why are there no noun markers with those two specific words? Are there other words like that? You would not do this with "girl" or "boy" would you?

And on a side note, I also find it a bit odd that in the English language men for example apparently refer to their wife as just "the wife" and not proudly as "my wife" as it is in Germany. It seems a bit impersonal. Do they also say "the boy" instead of "my boy"?

I am always trying to improve my English so I am musing about these things and why there is this difference. Many thanks for your help!
Tags: english, grammar
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  • 94 comments

asher63

February 13 2014, 17:29:44 UTC 5 months ago

In the particular case you're referring to, I'd say that "doctor" is being used as a title, short for the full form "Doctor [name]", and "baby" is used as a substitute for a personal name.

I have heard medical assistants and secretaries refer to their boss as simply "Doctor".

On a side note, you're probably aware that Americans say "go to the hospital" while Britons say "go to hospital".

Not all men say "the wife" and I think some people find it sexist.

thekumquat

February 13 2014, 17:38:49 UTC 5 months ago

This. Use of Doctor is in this way is pretty standard; baby and mum tend to be used as substitutes for a name solely by healthcare workers despite the latter really annoying many of said mums.

"the wife" is dialect - the speaker is implying they are a bit under her/the thumb for slight humorous effect. It's a similar use to "her/him indoors".
The 'the' could be taken as an endearment, a bit like der/die Name in parts of Germany. Though the phrase is associated with older, traditional men if it's used without joking intent.

dieastra

5 months ago

mamculuna

5 months ago

lignota

5 months ago

gr_cl

5 months ago

biascut

5 months ago

mamculuna

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

meepettemu

5 months ago

biascut

February 13 2014, 17:40:50 UTC 5 months ago

"The wife" is pretty rude, but it's usually used jokingly. Anyone who said "the wife" seriously would be pretty gross, but along with "her indoors", "himself", "the trouble and strife" it's usually used fairly tongue-in-cheek.

"I'll call doctor and he'll check whether baby is okay." - Doctor and baby are both being used as proper nouns here. It's pretty unusual to hear doctor used this way now, but not unusual to see baby used like this, although again it's slightly jokey - you can see lots of examples here.

dieastra

February 13 2014, 17:51:42 UTC 5 months ago

I stumbled first about "the wife" in an action figure forum where someone said that she should rather not find out how much money he spends on his figures. Maybe it was said in jest but if not it makes me rather sad, that he can't share what apparently is important for him. Naturally, everyone there assumed I was a boy as well ;)

I never heard any of your other examples. In LJ where it's usually more women than men, I have also seen OH so far or "hubby".

So nowadays they would add the actual name of the doctor, so you know which one they mean? (in case there is more than one).

Thank you for the baby pictures, those were quite - interesting!

biascut

5 months ago

mamculuna

5 months ago

biascut

5 months ago

mamculuna

5 months ago

biascut

5 months ago

mamculuna

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

mamculuna

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

germankitty

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

germankitty

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

germankitty

5 months ago

embryomystic

5 months ago

sorrowis_stupid

5 months ago

biascut

5 months ago

sorrowis_stupid

5 months ago

biascut

5 months ago

lysimache

February 13 2014, 17:45:26 UTC 5 months ago

As others have said, Doctor and Baby are being used as proper nouns in this sentence. I, a high school teacher, will use this kind of construction at times myself when referring to students' parents -- as in, "I called home and Mom says little Joey should be bringing that project in tomorrow" or "Mom and Dad attended the IEP meeting" or "Little Joey, what did Mom say about you going on the field trip?" -- because it's quicker and you don't have to remember the parents' last names (which are not always the same as the student's) or titles.

OTOH, I find "the wife" insulting.

dieastra

February 13 2014, 17:55:26 UTC 5 months ago

I can see how it is easier and quicker to use but if I heard you I probably would think you talk about your own Mom and Dad and be quite confused! This is really interesting.

It's true though that even in Germany there are differences in the areas, some say just the name of a person in a sentence, others always put a "der/die" in front.

I stumbled first about "the wife" in an action figure forum where someone said that she should rather not find out how much money he spends on his figures. Maybe it was said in jest but if not it makes me rather sad, that he can't share what apparently is important for him. Naturally, everyone there assumed I was a boy as well ;)

whswhs

February 13 2014, 17:52:12 UTC 5 months ago

This can be done with other nouns that refer to people; for example, "nurse," though I associate that more with Victorian households where Nurse took care of the children than with hospitals where Nurse takes care of sick people. The same Victorian households might refer to the cook as "Cook," though I think she might also be "Mrs. —," whether or not she had a spouse.

I believe American Catholic usage sometimes refers to nuns as "Sister" (or "S'ter") and perhaps to priests as "Father."

In secular high schools and colleges, the coach of a team at least used to be referrable to as "Coach," at least among members of the team.

I'm not sure it's a marker of anything particular; there may be some semantic nuance I'm not getting, but there's not an obvious pattern of some nouns that require "the" and some that omit it.

muckefuck

February 13 2014, 20:51:55 UTC 5 months ago

I believe American Catholic usage sometimes refers to nuns as "Sister" (or "S'ter") and perhaps to priests as "Father."

Pretty consistently IME. "Sister" wasn't as common since they were seldom found alone. I remember many more instances of "Father". (In cases where a parish had more than one priest assigned to it--clearly I'm talking about the old old days here--it generally designated either the pastor or the officiant according to context.)

Note that this wasn't the case for other ecclesiastical titles, such as "Deacon" or "Eucharistic Minister".

dieastra

5 months ago

mamculuna

February 13 2014, 17:53:30 UTC 5 months ago Edited:  February 13 2014, 17:59:03 UTC

I think that "Doctor," "Mother," and "Baby" are being used in those situations as if they were proper names. American English that I'm familiar with doesn't use words like those as stand-alone "names," but it sounds to me as though British English does.

ETA: after looking at other responses, I'm thinking that Britons no longer have this usage, either.

dieastra

February 22 2014, 19:36:55 UTC 5 months ago

It was a very interesting discussion, wasn't it? I didn't think I'd get so many replies. And maybe others learnt a thing or two as well.

Sorry, the replies came in so fast, I couldn't keep up with them, so I only now came back to yours. It seems definitely to be a thing of the past, although some of the later commenters said they still encounter it nowadays in certain areas as well, and by people who did not already live back then. But mostly they are dated terms.

lied_ohne_worte

February 13 2014, 18:27:53 UTC 5 months ago

"Die Tochter"/"Die Frau" can exist in German too though. Not sure if it's regional, but my father occasionally says "Die Tochter" when talking about me to others, which generally makes my mother ballistic. (My father doesn't intend or say it in any even slightly derogatory way; I've no idea where it comes from.)

dieastra

February 13 2014, 18:33:40 UTC 5 months ago

I seriously never heard that before! I wonder what your father would do if he had more than one daugther? How to distinguish?

In Saxony/former Eastern Germany we say "die" or "der" added to the name, like "der Robert" but my aunt from Western Germany up in the North would just use the name without it. So yeah, there are regional differences.

germankitty

5 months ago

anicca_anicca2

5 months ago

whswhs

5 months ago

muckefuck

5 months ago

whswhs

5 months ago

muckefuck

5 months ago

embryomystic

5 months ago

anicca_anicca2

5 months ago

antrazi

February 13 2014, 20:50:41 UTC 5 months ago

Even in Germany it depends in the area. Living in Cologne (both with or without dialect) using or dropping the der/die can change the meaning slightly. It even depends on which article. In Kölsch a female person can either be adressed with the de or the dat, or the high german die, and it's nicer to be adressed with the dat.

dieastra

February 13 2014, 21:24:32 UTC 5 months ago

Heh, the "de" you have in common with us Saxons ;) (I'm in Dresden). "Dat" sounds very endearing indeed. I'm a Wise Guys fan and also my co-worker is originally from Cologne, so I know the sound a bit and I love it. I love dialects in general. It's sad that so many people nowadays are ashamed of them and don't use them anymore.

antrazi

5 months ago

mushroomesque

February 14 2014, 00:35:36 UTC 5 months ago

There's also "The Mrs," as in "I'll have to check what the Mrs. thinks."

arrowwhiskers

February 14 2014, 01:30:11 UTC 5 months ago

I've heard "the Mrs." also--and I don't think that "the wife" sounds particularly insulting to my ears, if it's said playfully. Like: "I've gotta head out, I wanna get some flowers for the wife on the way home" or something. Is it really sexist? I've heard similar things for all sorts of relationships...the sister, the boyfriend, etc, I always just thought it was a lighthearted thing. Hunh.

piperki

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

fencer_x

February 14 2014, 01:39:42 UTC 5 months ago

Using "baby" without an article sounds terribly old-fashioned to my American ears; it sounds like something right out of a lullaby--"And down will come baby, cradle and all".

dieastra

February 14 2014, 07:49:18 UTC 5 months ago

Right! I think this was sung in a movie I watched not too long ago and I did wonder about it back then as well!
The others above have said that it is very british and very old, so not in use anymore. But still fascinating to learn about.

rirakkumiru

5 months ago

youraugustine

February 14 2014, 02:24:37 UTC 5 months ago

Wandering over:

It's an old-fashioned British usage; it's not common in any English dialect in modern English, but was prevalent at the time Call the Midwife is set. As others have said, "Doctor" and "Baby" here become names, rather than titles or object-nouns; I just wasn't seeing a note that it's a very specific time and place marker in terms of dialect. It would sound weird to any modern listener, and they'd probably also feel that the speaker was talking down to them.

(Which in a way the nurses who use it are: they're assuming a position of being in charge and of knowing more than the people they're talking to, being a soothing and reassuring authority figure. Sister Evangelina uses it most frequently, if I recall correctly, and that's TOTALLY her pose.)

houseboatonstyx

February 14 2014, 06:54:40 UTC 5 months ago

It's really odd, isn't it. It seems to begin with a situation where there can really only be one filling that role (or one at a time), and it is the job being spoken of, not the person. But then the title/job is capitalized and spoken as though it were a person.

Or the reverse: speaking of a particular woman as 'the wife'.

But jobs that would seem parallel to doctor, such as ship captain or movie director, don't get that treatment. Maybe it only occurs in contexts of nuturing, dependency? Where the person hearing it (patient or child) dare not object?

biascut

5 months ago

houseboatonstyx

5 months ago

houseboatonstyx

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

lilacsigil

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

lilacsigil

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

youraugustine

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

thekumquat

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

ami_ven

February 14 2014, 02:31:12 UTC 5 months ago

(I'm American, east coast)

I've never heard anyone say "doctor" unless it was "the doctor"/"a doctor" (as in, a generic medical doctor) or "Dr. X" (the title with a name).

"The wife" is not necessarily insulting, but almost always joking (as in, "I have to get home, the wife will wonder where I am")

And my family actually does use "the boy" and "the girl" (my brother and me). My mother will ask things like "will the boy be home for dinner tomorrow?" or "are these the girl's books?" This probably only works in families with one of each.

dieastra

February 14 2014, 07:38:07 UTC 5 months ago

We would just use the name. "Will Norbert be home for dinner" or "Are those Antje's books?" Granted, my grandmother has a bit trouble and often goes through many names till she found the right one ;)

I think everyone above agreed about the doctor/baby thing that it is mainly british and mainly from the past. But I have learnt now that I should spell it Baby as it substitutes the name. Interesting! And here I was struggling not to write Doctor because of Doctor Who LOL

rauduskoivu

February 14 2014, 05:39:12 UTC 5 months ago

I think at least back in the day "the boy" and "the girl" were actually more common than one might guess. Like, back when husbands and wives wouldn't even use their first names with each other, just "Mrs. Smith" or what have you.

houseboatonstyx

February 14 2014, 06:57:49 UTC 5 months ago

There was a time when quite affectionate and respectful spouses would refer to each other as 'Mother' and 'Father', whether in third person or in second person.

lilacsigil

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

rirakkumiru

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

ubykhlives

February 14 2014, 14:34:37 UTC 5 months ago

Depends on what accent it is. I'm kind of surprised no-one seems to have mentioned it, but in Lancashire English, it's very common for a definite article ("the") to be reduced phonetically to [ʔ] or [t], such that it's virtually inaudible to most English-speakers. The faux Lancashire accent put on by Graham Chapman in Monty Python's "Working Class Playwright" sketch (look it up on Youtube) is a great example of this; you can hear phrases like I'll do t'talkin', gettin' up at five o'clock in t'mornin', get 'agent on t'phone.

In the example I'll call doctor and he'll check whether baby is okay, the glottal article could well be responsible for both "missing articles".

biascut

February 14 2014, 17:24:29 UTC 5 months ago Edited:  February 14 2014, 17:25:21 UTC

Yorkshire English and a lot of the North East Midlands too. I grew up in Nottingham, and I was amazed when I discovered that the phonetically written "t'pit" was the perfectly normal glottal stop that I heard at school all the time. I still have to remind myself not to pronounce it "tuh pit".

(Though I'm pretty sure Call the Midwife is set in East London, where they definitely don't have it!)

dieastra

5 months ago

houseboatonstyx

February 14 2014, 15:24:30 UTC 5 months ago Edited:  February 14 2014, 15:29:06 UTC

Dieastra, I think that for someone using English as a second language, the safe thing might be to always use 'the' or 'a'. The expressions used in "Call the Midwife" are now rare, old fashioned, and may be heard as condescending or insulting.

The following may sound like I'm joking, but really English is this confusing in this area. So maybe ESL materials should be teaching how to avoid these pitfalls altogether!

Modern exceptions to 'the' are when talking about one's own wife or husband or child, (or boss or gardener) darnnit! Or any time when the personal name is known and could be used, perhaps with a explanation: "This is my wife Miriam and my daughter Sarah." By avoiding the name by saying 'the wife', you're de-personalizing the person. 'My wife' is less depersonalizing and can be used in some contexts, when the hearer does not know her personal name and it is not relevant and would be confusing: "I can't come, my wife is in the hospital." In that case, "My wife Miriam is in the hospital" would suggest that his other wives are fine.

Of course if you're writing an etiquette book, you must say "At a formal dinner, the husband should never be seated next to the wife."

Perhaps the common factor is depersonalizing (by using title instead of name) or over-personalizing (by using a title as though it were a name, or inserting a likely name when you mean the title or position ('Kitty' rather than 'the cat'). C.S. Lewis occasionally uses the latter, but he was writing 50 years ago, and it was somewhat old-fashioned even then.

Good luck!

dieastra

February 20 2014, 22:37:56 UTC 5 months ago

Thank you very much! You're right, I wouldn't dare using any of these myself as long as I know how the correct way is. But isn't it funny how ESL speakers usually are better at the language, because they try to stick to the rules... I have the same with an Ukraine co-worker who often asks me why things are like this or like that in German, and I can't answer, as I just do it without thinking why.

So, it is just fun asking the "why" once in a while and trying to find new rules that are not in the dictionary. Because a language is not always stiff, it is changing all the time and there are so many little differencies.

archaicos

February 15 2014, 03:56:48 UTC 5 months ago

I find the definite/indefinite/zero article games odd.

To me (a non-native speaker of English), the wife, my wife, one's wife, a wife, etc is perfectly understandable and logical, whereas simply wife isn't.

A/the/nada wife is not some uncountable thing or a material like water, meat or sand. If you take a bit of water or meat or sand from a larger amount of water or meat or sand, you still have water or meat or sand in both places. If you take a bit of wife from some wife, you most likely end up having a crippled person and some body parts. I don't treat wives as (almost-) infinitely divisible things. :)

Understandably, some nouns can be used as both countable and uncountable, depending on the context. You can have waters, meats and sands (and skies and heavens:), if you want to differentiate between different kinds, instances, brands and so on. I like beer (beer in general). I'll have a beer (a bottle of beer). My store sells 1000 different beers (different brands of beer).

Now, there's this thing I've noticed... You can refer to God as God or the god. In one case the noun acts as a name (and is capitalized) and in the other it acts as just a regular countable noun (perhaps, some may object to this view as they think there's just one god, not many, and that it/they is/are everywhere and everything and thus can't be countable at all, I'm fine with such views (so long as I'm not required to share them:), and they may be reflected in using god without any article or identifier before it). We can (and we probably do?) transfer this logic to the word wife. Again, Wife and the wife make perfect sense to me, as a name (of sorts) and as a noun.

There's yet another kind of wife that I can imagine. Wife as an abstract idea and not a particular person like Michelle Obama. Just like we use a/the language when referring to one of many languages and simply language when we mean something else, something more abstract (or with a different meaning, e.g. way of speaking, cursing). But it would be odd to refer to a living thing in this way, as if she was an idea or a fiction. Now, that would be cruel and offensive! :)

But, I guess, in speech we lack the register to make capital letters stand out, and so Wife and wife are indistinguishable in speech just like God and god. Can it be that?

dieastra

February 20 2014, 23:23:29 UTC 5 months ago

If you take a bit of wife from some wife, you most likely end up having a crippled person and some body parts.

That is a pretty funny way to look at this question ;) It made me smile.

I read the "the wife" thing in the internet all the time though, so it isn't indistinguishable because of speech.

taversham

February 16 2014, 16:40:55 UTC 5 months ago

Bit late to this post, but I just wanted to add that at least where I am (South West England), using "Baby" and "Doctor" in this way wouldn't sound very dated at all. I'm in my early 20s (though spend a bit more time in hospitals/at the doctors than the average) and have encountered this usage a lot by people who I wouldn't consider "old" and certainly weren't alive in the 50s - "What did Nurse say?", "Has Doctor seen you yet?", "Consultant will be here soon.", etc - though it's not something I say myself (I think). Friends of mine who've had babies also say the "Let's check Baby's temperature"-usage is fairly common too.

Maybe it's just Devon being behind the times, though Jack Dee (comedian, from London) did a stand-up routine in I think the late 90s or early 2000s, about his frustration that health visitors would say things like "How's Baby?", "Is Dad okay?" when they visited his family after his children were born (i.e., mid 90s at the earliest) - so it must have been somewhat widespread then (not least because the audience laugh, implying recognition rather than them thinking "I thought they only said that in my gran's day").

houseboatonstyx

February 17 2014, 05:51:56 UTC 5 months ago Edited:  February 17 2014, 08:12:10 UTC

Current US, possibly the same thing. People often say "How is puppy?" (when he is not present) or "Where is puppy?" or "I'm not driving till I see where puppy is." Dunno whether they are capitalizing it, doesn't sound capitalized.

They know we have a dog (a middle-aged dog actually, but 25 lbs and cute) but probably don't know his name. The latter driver had just seen him running around her car.

ETA: More US current examples. A dog groomer, for example, may say to the dog, "Go to Daddy". May ask the dog (or the male owner), "Where's Mommy?"

Here's a quote from a legal advice site.
Pa is the owner of the land.
You have only a future interest which is not vested yet and which will not vest till pa dies.


This was in answer to a question a man posted saying "My father signed a deed to us [etc etc]" The questioner never referred to 'Pa' or even to 'Father'; it was always 'my father'.

dieastra

5 months ago

dieastra

5 months ago

taversham

3 months ago