LINGUIST List 4.513

Wed 30 Jun 1993

Disc: Neologistic Pronouns

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  1. Michael Newman, neologistic pronouns

Message 1: neologistic pronouns

Date: Wed, 30 Jun 93 06:30:11 EDneologistic pronouns
From: Michael Newman <MNEHCCUNYVM.bitnet>
Subject: neologistic pronouns

I just got back from vacation (with linguist set to nomail) to find a message
from a friend forwarding a message with what appears to be a neoligistic
pronoun designed to get around the traditionally messy problem of aggreement
with singular antecedents of indistinct gender, which I following Dennis Baron
call 'epicene.' As anyone who has read Baron's work on the subject of pronomin-
al neologisms knows, there a long and sometimes amusing history of what he
called "the word that failed."

After writing a diss on the whole subject of epicene pronoun use, (that is what
pronouns are actually used coreferentially with epicene antecedents) I've come
to some conclusions as to why the word fails. (Another problem is why it is so
consistently proposed.) In any case the problem lies in the premises. The
assumption behind the coining of a neologism is that there is a category in
English of 'epicene,' which is through some odd quirk in the language miss-
ing a pronoun. The coiner then fixes that problem by filling in the gap. Yet
surely this is a too simple view of English grammatical categories and agree-
ment itself. There seems to be little reason to posit 'masculine' or 'feminine'
as grammatical categories in English, to say nothing of 'epicene.' Further-
more, it is difficult to support the notion (despite some attempts to do so)
that pronouns are chosen on the basis of syntactic mechanisms in any case, if
for no other reason than that structural considerations (such as c-command and
sentence boundaries) would seem to be besides the point except in very limited
circumstances. Even in these circumstances (e.g. E-types, donkey, etc.) the
effect of structure is more on interpretation than on choice of form. Anaphoric
pronoun choice, in fact, is best seen as responding to meaning not form. That's
the problem with prescriptive use of epicene HE --it makes everything referred
to seem male--and it is also the reason why no neologism can work. There is
no agreement category of epicene, any more than there is one for animals,
transvestites, collectives, or collections. The meaning of the proposed
pronoun (i.e., this is a person but of unclear gender) is not a significant
semantic category the way say genericity, say, or plurality, might be. Result:
there is no niche for the proposed epicene pronoun in the language. It
provides no useful information syntactically or semantically, and so it fails.
Michael Newman
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