Saturday, February 9, 2008

Revisiting personal pronouns

Last time I centered on the multiplicity of ways Thai can say "I".
But as it is understood, each language describes the world in its very own way. Some times we find similarities. And maybe that's the reason we frown on a use different from what we are used to.
Personal pronouns are not out of this notion.
So... are personal pronouns the same across languages? Fortunately, no.
The first that comes to my mind is "we".
you might know that many languages have two forms for the first person plural pronoun: one for feminine and one for masculine. Thus, Spanish has nosotras and nosotros; while Japanese has 私達, Russian only has мы and French only has nous.
But let's take Chinese, for example. Chinese also has two forms for we, but in this case, the distinction does not depend on gender but in clusivity. Chinese has 咱们 / 咱們, which means "we, in the sense of "you and I", and 我们 / 我們, which means "we, but excluding you". This is a handy distinction!

What about when you read legal papers? Aren't you tired of the text pointing to things like "he or she" or "s/he"? Or, to put it in a more difficult situation, some people who is afraid of telling their family they are homosexual, have to play the pronoun game when talking about their partner. Here, they have to avoid the specific gender pronouns so others don't notice their sexual orientation. How hard can that be in many languages!
There are languages that do not present these problems. You have a pronoun that doesn't point out at the gender of the person you are talking about.
Ido, for example, has il, "he"; el, "she"; and oli, "he or she". It is not that ol is equivalent to English "it", as "it" cannot be used to talk about a person.
But languages like Malay only have one form for the third person singular: Malay has only dia to mean "he" or "she" and the context will tell whether the speaker is refering to a man or a woman.
Continuing with the third pronoun, Spanish doesn't doesn't distinguish animacy and we have only él and ella (ello is a special form seldom used). And Turkish combines both: its pronoun do not reflect gender nor animacy. Turkish o can mean "he", "she" or "it".

All this arises some classifications. We have epicene pronouns (pronouns that neither reveal nor imply the gender or sex of a person) and androgynous pronouns (pronouns that refer to neither or both genders).

And there are even situations when a language needs a pronoun when another doesn't.
An expletive pronoun (sometimes called "pleonastic pronoun" and even the easier to remember "dummy pronoun") is used in non-pro-drop languages when a verb argument (or preposition) is nonexistent, unknown, irrelevant, already understood, or otherwise not to be spoken of directly, but when a reference to the argument (a pronoun) is nevertheless syntactically required, for example when there is increasing ambiguity between the pronoun and the subject or object.
The perfect example of this can be found in English: "It is obvious that the violence will continue". You won't be able to substitute "it" in that sentence with a noun phrase.

I think I need to explore this topic a little more in the future!

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