Thursday, March 13, 2008

Looking back

I mentioned in a joke post a week or so back that linguists are fascinated by the most innocuous words in language, words like "a" and "the". And I'm not joking. Perhaps the most debated topic in language of the last 30 years or so is the study of "he", "him", "she", "her", and "himself" and "herself".


Linguists are dazzled by pronouns. Mesmero the Beguiler couldn't hold our attention as much as the word "it". The main question about pronouns is, "how do we know what they refer to?" And there are a dozen theories. I should make that a dozen theories a year. When people start off analyzing a language, they might try to figure out a bit about what's a noun and what's a verb (not always easy to tell; in fact, there might be a few languages that don't even have nouns at all), maybe something about word order or case (the things that tell you what the subject is or what the object is), and then they tackle pronouns. I've mentioned Noam Chomsky several times here. Probably his most successful theory of grammar, still taught to virtually every grad student in Europe and the U.S., is called Government and Binding theory. Now most of you probably think this is a description of how robin s and EE spend their free time. Okay, it is that too, but binding also refers to a theory of... pronouns.

Year one or so of my program, I thought pronouns were sort of interesting, but really I couldn't get excited about them. I mean, it's a nice little puzzle, but... eh, whatever, linguists have to choose something to study, might as well be a pronoun. Besides I don't do syntax. It wasn't until year two that I had the insight that, as far as I am aware, every single language has pronouns.

Oh, languages differ on what sorts of pronouns they have. Sometimes, it's the same word for male and female; sometimes there's no clear difference in being singular or plural; sometimes they have one word for a "we" that includes the speaker versus a different word for the "we" which does not include the speaker; etc. But there's always pronouns.

And that's actually kind of odd, because we don't really need the damn things, do we? Especially the 3rd person ones. Why not just say the name all the time? Jack kissed Suzie. Suzie slapped Jack. Jack liked the slap. That would actually be less ambiguous than having a bunch of pronouns where sometimes we have to say, "Oh, you meant Jack did it; I thought you were talking about Stan." And yet every culture around the world, in some 6,000 languages, uses some version of pronouns. (Visiting linguists, correct me.)

In fact, we can get confused if the speaker keeps using the noun over and over and over. We prefer a good pronoun. "John went to the store. John bought three cases of beer and a coffee cake. John went home and drank half a case of beer for breakfast and gave the coffee cake to Fido, the dog." That's actually harder to read than, "John went to the store. He bought three cases of beer and a coffee cake. He then went home and...." Pronouns can be quite ambiguous and yet we seem to like them better. There are studies where people understand a sentence MORE quickly if it has pronouns rather than repeating the noun.

So why is this? The fundamental reason is that pronouns are what connect the current part of the story to the earlier part. The current sentence arrives and it is bound to a past one by the pronoun. Indeed, pronouns don't work at all unless something came earlier in the story. They require context and history. By doing so, they connect the present to the past. It's not occurring in isolation, but is part of a larger whole.

Pronouns are also just the tip of the iceberg. The word "did" can be used as a sort of verb pronoun, or pro-verb? (The term is actually anaphora.) For example, take the sentence "Robin frolicked with EE just like ChurchLady did an hour before." What did ChurchLady do? She frolicked. And we know that because 1) she's a frolicking kind of gal, and 2) we know that "did" refers to the verb earlier in the story.

So there are noun pronouns and verb pronouns and even ways to refer back to adjectives and some adverbs, though those often require a phrase in English. Questions even rest upon this ability to connect to the past. "Mary chose pink taffeta for her bridesmaids." "Excuse me, she chose pink what for her bridesmaids?" Here the "what" is asking what the odd word was earlier on. It's also not just these grammar things. The intonation you use is based in part upon referring back to earlier parts of the story. Imagine the conversation, "A says: John kissed Mary. B says: John kissed SUZIE." The caps indicates that "Suzie" was said quite loud and distinctly and with a high pitch. If two people just said, "John kissed Mary; John kissed Suzie," with no special accent on "Suzie", then old speaker B could just be adding information that John kissed a second person. He kissed both women. But when you put the right kind of stress on the word "Suzie," you are saying that, no, you need to take Mary out of the last sentence and put in Suzie instead, because he kissed Suzie, not Mary. In other words, even the way you stress words in a sentence can be a pointer backwards to earlier events and objects, sort of intonation pronouns.

So pronouns, in the very broad sense I am using here, are what make our speech, our public thoughts, hold together and develop through time. We bring something to attention in the hearer by giving the full noun. "The Governor of New York paid over $5000 for an hour with an escort!" and then we simply nod to that thing that's in our attention by using a pronoun later on. When you first hear, "the Governor of New York" it's new information and you have to decide to bring the idea to mind and it takes energy. If the second sentence was another full noun, you would expect that this is new now too. The speaker was talking about the Governor, now he's talking about the FBI. I better add this to my list of people to remember to understand what he's talking about. How tedious! But a pronoun just says, "hey, I'm nothing new, dude! Chill! I'm the same thing you are already thinking about." Pronouns don't just save the speaker energy, because they allow them to say "he" instead of "The Governor of New York;" they also save the hearer energy and make speech easier to follow.

We like easy things. So we give the noun once. Then we pronoun away for a bit. (Notice the creative use of pronoun as a verb?) And then after a couple sentences, we give the noun again to kind of say, "yeah, it's still the same reference, don't worry" and continue on. But pure repetition of the same noun over and over really bugs us.

This seems to be true even in writing style. In my journal work, I handle papers from profs. Manuscripts. Articles. In fact, I cannot stand to write an email to an author or editor without using some combination of all three words. If I don't, it sounds like this: "Thank you for the submission of your paper to the Journal of I Wish They'd Go Away. Your paper will now be forwarded to the editors for review. Should the paper meet the journal's guidelines, the paper will be sent to anonymous reviewers." And on and on. The paper, the paper, the paper, the paper. And so we sub in pronouns when we can, in this case "it", but, if we can't use "it" clearly, we start sticking in other nouns that mean about the same thing. The paper, the article, the manuscript, the homage to the tenure gods, etc. And somehow by adding in a bunch of things that should be less clear, because we are using multiple words for the same thing when we "could" use one, we are much happier.

Now, to see how ubiquitous pronouns are, go back through this post and count how many times I use them. And I don't even mean when I use them in quotes. (No, don't really, unless you are stunningly bored.) There's 5, and an implied 6th, in this little paragraph alone.


Precie said...

LOL! Great stuff!

Now tell me...How do you feel about the use of "they/them" as a singular reference to avoid gender attribution? As in, "A nonfiction writer should take care. They don't want to appear sexist."

(Obviously, in that case, it's easy enough to make writer plural to avoid the grammar problem, but there are lots of times when pluralization isn't a good option. I ask because my inner English major cringes whenever I see this.)

pacatrue said...

Precie, I must confess that both the inner and the outer linguist use "they" for a gender-neutral singular pronoun almost daily! (I heard a rumor that you can find these in Austen, but I can't verify. Her alleged use (let's call her a user) doesn't make it any more right or wrong than anyone else's use, but it does hint that this "non-standard" use has been around for a while. See, I cringed in a major way with that last repetition of use. Definitely should have gone with employment. :)

Mommy to Ander and Wife to Box said...

Pronouns. Paca, I barely slept last night...and this post made me drowsy. LOL.

One interesting pronoun note, though. At our two year old's checkup, one of his developmental milestones was to be using pronouns. I said he was, but Alan denied it.

ChristineEldin said...

Heh heh!!!

Love frolicking!

And I've always been annoyed with that 'they' issue as well. I'm glad Precie asked.


Precie said...

Yeah...uh, paca...between "they" as singular and "ain't" as an acceptable term...

Soon, you and I are going to "have words."

As for pronouns, the above sentence just reminded me...How would a person function without the 1st person pronoun? Even the 2nd person pronoun would be sorely missed, I would think.

Are there any languages that don't use pronouns?

pacatrue said...

If Ander hasn't started using pronouns yet, he will soon. It's the right age.

Precie, we might disagree about singular "they", but probably not so much about "ain't". We are just talking about different purposes. Ain't is a full blown, true English word is all I'm saying. There's nothing wrong with it as a bit of English. That isn't to say that there are not expectations about both style and social grouping that the word "ain't" expresses. I ain't gonna let "ain't" through into an academic article I'm copy editing. Similarly, I ain't gonna use "ain't" at a scientific lecture where I am supposed to be demonstrating my education. But "ain't" is a word; it's not malformed or dumb. It's simply a social convention not to use it because people in power have all agreed not to use it.

As for pronouns, I'm no expert at all. However, yes, I think if a language only has one set of pronouns, it will be 1st person; if they only have two, it will be 1st and 2nd; and then comes 3rd. It's hard to imagine not having a 1st person one. As far as I know, all languages have pronouns in some manner. Universal.

Precie said...

"It's simply a social convention not to use it because people in power have all agreed not to use it."

Aw, shoot. As someone accustomed to being in socio-politically marginalized groups, it's weird for me to be among "people in power." ;)

And I'm fascinated by children's verbal Child has some speech issues, mainly in terms of pronunciation, but he's been so fascinating in terms of linquistic functions...the desire to name things, then the pronouns, then putting nouns and verbs and such together to create narrative. Then things like verb tense...such cool developments.