LINGUIST List 5.964

Wed 07 Sep 1994

Misc: She, Borrowing of pronouns in SEA - Re: 5.963 Altaic

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  1. David Powers, Re: 5.956 She
  2. Scott C DeLancey, Borrowing of pronouns in SEA (was Re: 5.963 Altaic)

Message 1: Re: 5.956 She

Date: Mon, 05 Sep 1994 10:50:58 Re: 5.956 She
From: David Powers <>
Subject: Re: 5.956 She

> Date: Fri, 2 Sep 94 11:21 GMT
> Subject: RE: 5.923 Qs: Writing corpus, Koine Syncope, Pronouns, Thesaurus
> A few years ago, I wrote an English "Speaking Skills" coursebook with
a friend.
> The publisher - a very well known name over here, who had been
publishing EFL
> textbooks for some decades - went through all our dialogues and
changed every
> 'they' for single unknown people in normal utterances such as (as it were)
> "There's someone at the door. Go and see what they want." to "There's
> at the door. Go and see what he or she wants." In the end we had to
agree on
> either a "he" or a "she" in all examples, but there was no way the publisher
> would accept "they".

In this particular case there is absolutely no reason for people to
reject the "someone ... they". The number of people involved is unknown
and either assumption is reasonable, and in fact this is the most
reasonable way of expressing the situation.

Heard: knocking/ringing at the door, consistent with one actor (someone)
Conclusion: there ARE one OR MORE people at the door (they)

Note that if you are expecting
a. a visitor or
b. a group of visitors

You conclusion will be

Conclusion: our visitor(s) have arrived
Respons: Go and let him/her/them in (selection determined by expectation)

The influence of the whole scene on our formulations is well known in
several contexts, I mention two:

Metonomy: I've put the coffee on... The kettle's boiling...
 Oh dear, we're out of coffee!

Languages with gender/sex mismatch or independence:

Das/Sie ist ein kluges Maedchen. Sie/Es kann ...
It/she is a clever girl. She/It can ...

Mon professeur ... Il/Elle a dit ...
My teacher(male gender,female sex) He/She said ...

These days there seems to be an increasing tendency for pronouns
to match the actual sex rather than the grammatical gender when the
referent's sex is known.

Also consider disjunction and parenthesis:

The cat or the dog comes/come over...
The man (and his wife) come/comes regularly...

So what is my conculsion. The difficulties associated with the
introduction of gender neutral language don't surprise me at all,
but rather fit well in my theoretical framework.

To extrapolate from these four cases and the singular use of "you" & "we"
to a singular use of "they", will be far more readily and automatically
accommodated than an artificially introduced pronoun which will disrupt
the information theoretic balance of the closed classes and thus trigger
(if accepted) concomitant changes in the language to restore the balance.
"He or she" is even more strongly counterindicated on information
theoretic grounds. It may find a following, but is unlikely to find
a permanent (i.e. in the next generation) place in the language.

NB To explain this further. A communication system is a balance
between efficiency (viz. brevity and elimination of redundancy)
and efficacy (viz. robustness and augmentation of redundancy).
The additional redundancy introduced by augmenting the number of
fillers of a closed class slot must eventually be balanced by a
removal of redundancy (abbreviation/compression somewhere) as an
energy minimization problem under the constraint that the information
is transferred correctly under the expected noise conditions (the
redundancy present is matched to the kinds of errors/ambiguities
which need to be corrected/overcome). This is probably new/controversial
in linguistics, but that is _not_ the case in computing/communications.

The outworking of this effect is evident, for example, in creolization.
There's a lot of work to be done on examining the implications of
information theory in language.

Assoc. Prof. David Powers (SIGART Editor; SIGNLL Chair)
Discipline of Computer Science UniOffice: +61-8-201-3663
The Flinders University of South Australia Secretary: +61-8-201-2662
GPO Box 2100, Adelaide South Australia 5001 Facsimile: +61-8-201-3626
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Message 2: Borrowing of pronouns in SEA (was Re: 5.963 Altaic)

Date: Tue, 6 Sep 1994 13:31:27 -Borrowing of pronouns in SEA (was Re: 5.963 Altaic)
From: Scott C DeLancey <>
Subject: Borrowing of pronouns in SEA (was Re: 5.963 Altaic)

Alexis Manaster-Ramer ( writes:

> I have also received a bunch of mail about my remarks on the
> borrowing of pronous, pointing that borrowed pronouns (
> or at any rate words referring to the speaker and the
> hearer, whether they really are pronouns or not) are
> quite common in SE Asia.

They're not. Pronouns, that is. At least in anything like the
normal sense that is relevant to issues of borrowing. Pronouns
elsewhere in the world are grammatical elements, in the sense of
being small, closed classes with a tight paradigmatic structure.
To a considerable extent their resistance to borrowing is simply
part of the resistance of paradigmatic grammatical elements in
 In languages like Thai, one of the famous examples of borrowing
of "pronouns", the morphemes in question constitute a large,
semi-open class, into which new elements (native or foreign)
are introduced quite freely. Thai has about 30 "pronouns" in
common use, many of them transparently nominal in (fairly shallow)
origin, and also freely uses kin terms and occupational/status
nouns in exactly the same way as these "pronouns". It makes
much more sense to regard these as a slightly specialized subclass
of noun than as a distinct grammatical category.

> of native pronouns by borrowed ones is rare. As far as I
> know (and this was pointed out in the 1960's by Dolgopolsky)
> the typical SE Asian situation involves borrowing of foreign
> forms (which are typically NOT pronouns at least in the
> source language) but retention of the native ones as well
> (with differentiation along social, pragmatic, etc., lines)

Actually the typical situation involves cooption into the set
of a native noun. For example, Thai schoolgirls (sometimes?)
use _nuu_ 'mouse' as a 1st person pronoun in speaking to social
superiors. When foreign elements are incorporated into the
system this way (AMR is quite right that this is always a question
of incorporation, not replacement) they are really being
borrowed as nouns, albeit in a specialized function.
 There are certainly well-documented cases of borrowing of
pronouns, but the SEA cases don't really qualify, and it is very
misleading to bring them into this kind of discussion.

Scott DeLancey
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, USA
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