LINGUIST List 10.216

Wed Feb 10 1999

Sum: Personal Pronouns/Reference to Mother

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Richard Dury, Personal Pronouns/Reference to Mother

Message 1: Personal Pronouns/Reference to Mother

Date: Sun, 7 Feb 1999 16:10:28 +0100
From: Richard Dury <>
Subject: Personal Pronouns/Reference to Mother

Summary: restricted us of 'you' and 'she' when addressing/referring to

Thanks to the following for their replies:
Alda Gandini, Bernard Comrie, Colin Whiteley, Di Kilpert, F. Gladney,, Jessica Ring, Joan Smith/Kocamahhul, John Atkinson,
Margaret K. Aurilio, Mark Brand, Mark Irwin, Phoevos Panagiotidis,
Scott DeLancey, John E Koontz, Vincent Jenkins

A tabular summary of the replies (on rebukes for using 'she') can be
found for the next couple of weeks at

My idea was that Muehlhaeusler & Harr or their students were just
confused about this point, mixing up the widespread restrictions on
the use of 'she' (see below) with reference to Mother in general. In
fact, all those who commented on this said they knew of no restriction
- with one exception!

Maurice Williams who grew up in Jamaica said that 'you' said by a
child to mother/grandmother might be taken as impolite when
contradicting without the necessary softeners. His example is:

Grandmother: Didn't I tell you not to come in the kitchen?
Child: No. You said not to go in the--.
Grandmother: 'You'? Who are you calling 'you'? "Facety" (meaning 
"fresh") boy!

But the following might be OK:

Grandmother: Didn't I tell you not to come in the kitchen?
Child: No, Grandma. You said not to go in the pantry.


2.1) The condemned practice generally applies to references by a child
to his or her mother (though Joan Smith from NZ said it could apply to
a reference to any woman, and Vincent Jenkins from the UK seems to
have been recently rebuked by his sister-in-law for referring to her
mother as 'she' (playfully perhaps)).

2.1) This condemned practice does not apply to anaphoric uses e.g. 
"Mam says she's going out" is perfectly acceptable.

2.2) It could be seen as just an example of the impolite reference to
a present person (in the conversational group or within obvious
earshot) by the pronoun, e.g.
John: I'm going.
John's father: Is she going as well? [referring to John's girlfriend
sitting next to him -
clearly disparaging]

Polite alternative:
John's father: Is Mary going as well?

This is the opinion of Phoevos Panagiotidis and Bernard Comrie.

Obviously children have to be taught not to refer to people present by a
deictic pronoun so are often rebuked for doing so.

2.3) However, Mother does seem to be given special attention because there
is a standard riposte calling attention to the pronoun:
'SHE's the cat's mother' or 'Who's SHE? The cat's mother' (or 'cat's
grandmother' or 'cat's aunt'). My wife, Alda Gandini, also confirms
that in Italian (where the riposte would be the equivalent of 'SHE has
a name') it's more of an offence if the mother is referred to in this

2.4) I would think that the greatest offence would be the use of SHE
as a stressed deictic to mean 'that woman!' of someone *not*
present. Without any genuine dialogues to hand, here is a translation
vof a sweet poem by 18C German poet Matthias Claudius:

I don't want to live any longer / The light of day is hateful to me / 'Cos
SHE gave some cake to Franze / But not to ME!

Mark Brand gives an example from a Frank Sinatra film of 1954 (*Suddenly*).
Boy (to widowed mother's suitor): '... but SHE won't let me have it'. 
Surrogate Father: 'Is that the way to speak of your mother?'

This use of the deictic (for the non-present cause of all my/our woes)
is not confined to children of course. In the delightful maze-like
periods of von Kleist's 'Die Marquise von O...' (17**) the occasional
direct speech exchanges stand out in stark contrast, the following
among them: [Mother to daughter, after she's spoken to Father who'd
been ranting about having no Daughter more, waving a loaded pistol
around etc.] 'Now he's sitting and crying'. 'Who?' asked the Marquess
[the Daughter]. 'HIM,' answered the Mother. 'Who else?'

I would think that the mother being the main controller of the lives
of children, restricting their comings in and goings out, their
risings and goings to bed, the division between playtime and mealtime,
the limits on their consumption of Peanut Butter and Nutella, the
child is apt to see HER as the cause of his/her woes. Adults with an
educator's role over the child will step in to correct this incorrect
world-view. The less central role of the father in the daily life of
the child would explain why there's no special formula to reproach the
child for using HE in this way.

2.5) Several people said that the person who reproached would be
typically the father. There is a possibility that the greater offence
at using SHE of the mother would be that it draws attention to the
sexuality rather than the family role.

2.6) Having said that, my own memories of receiving the 'SHE's the
cat's mother' riposte is from my mother (from Liverpool) - who must
have been the overhearing person referred to by my 'she'.

3) Further Query 1: can anyone supply any *genuine* dialogues with the
use of 'SHE's the cat's mother' ? Is the person referred to usually

4) Further Query 2: any other examples (apart from that of Maurice
Williams, above) of condemned use of 'you' to a parent.

Richard Dury
Univ. Brescia, Italy
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