“Is there any my phone?”

On Thursday night my wife’s phone ended up on the table on my side of the bed. On Friday morning she asked ‘Is there any my phone?’.

Clearly, this is not standard English, and it’s not even any established non-standard variety of English I know anything about. Equally clearly, I understood what she meant, quickly found her phone and gave it to her.

So what exactly is the problem with what she said? (Before I go any further, I must stress that my wife’s English is a heck of a lot better than my Korean, and that if she makes more mistakes in English than I do in Korean, it’s because she speaks English a heck of a lot more than I speak Korean.)

My first thought was that you can’t use any with a singular countable noun, but that’s not true. Certainly, there are some contexts in which you can’t (*”Do you have any child?” v “Do you have any children?”), but there are many in which you can (a sales/service assistant in a mobile phone shop might say “Is there any phone you like?” (or “Are there any phones you like?”). Google Ngrams shows Is there any has been steadily declining since the 1820s, but is still more common than Are there any, which declined slightly in the 19th century then remained more-or-less constant in the 20th.

any my is certainly a mistake. English noun phrases usually use only one determiner (any phone (as above) or my phone). But certain determiners can be used in combination with others (both my phones, all my friends) (some people would say both of my phones, all of my friends’; the versions without the of are more common). We would have to say any of my, but that can’t be used with a singular countable noun.

The third is the use of is there to ask about the location of something. In English, is there is usually used to ask about the existence of something. In Korean, however,  있다 (idd-da) covers existence, possession and location. In English, you might say “Is my phone there?” (location; note the same words in a different order as “Is there my phone?”) or “Do you have/Have you got my phone?” (possession) (or many other things, for example, “Can you see my phone?” or “Do you know where my phone is?”). In Korean, as far as my Korean grammar goes, 내 핸드폰 있어요? can mean “Does my phone exist?”, “Do I have my phone?”, “Do you have my phone?” or “Is my phone (somewhere, implicitly ‘near you’)?”.

Korea is a ‘high-context’ culture, in which “many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain”. The Wikipedia article includes Korea in its list of high-context cultures and Australia in its list of low-context cultures.

On Saturday morning, my wife asked “Is there a plan?” (that is, “Do you have any plan for today?”). I didn’t, so we had coffee and a short walk along the river before she went to work.


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