LINGUIST List 7.1363

Wed Oct 2 1996

Qs: Personal pronouns

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  1. Johannes Helmbrecht, Q: Personal pronouns

Message 1: Q: Personal pronouns

Date: Tue, 01 Oct 1996 11:53:36 EDT
From: Johannes Helmbrecht <106265.1156CompuServe.COM>
Subject: Q: Personal pronouns
Dear Linguists,

I would like to post a query on the unusual and peripheral use of
personal pronouns in European and Non-european languages. Personal
pronouns are commonly viewed as having a very clear-cut and
unambiguous reference. In grammars and the relevant linguistic
literature, the meaning of personal pronouns is described in terms of
the speech-act roles 'speaker' and 'hearer', and it is usually assumed
that pronouns which refer to the speaker or a group of individuals
belonging to the speaker, or which refer to the hearer(s) or a group
associated with the hearer, etc. have the same reference in every
context. However, it is not difficult to find examples which show that
personal pronouns can be used in limited contexts with a different
non-prototypical reference. Personal pronouns do not simply change
their reference in these limited contexts, they also convey some
additonal meanings which have to do with the personal or social
relation between the speaker and the hearer or between the speaker and
the individual(s) he refers to. Let me briefly present some examples
from German which show what kind of phenomena I have in mind.

The 2nd person singular pronoun 'du' (you) can be used in German to
refer to a 1st person singular as can be seen in (1) and (2):

(1) Du konntest richtig spueren, wie die Erde bebte.
 You could really feel how the earth was shaking.
(2) Jetzt musst du ruhig bleiben !
 You have to stay cool now !

Example (1) could be part of a story of an exciting event (earthquake)
in which the speaker was involved. In order to communicate and to
emphasize the thrill and excitement he has experienced in this
sitution the speaker uses 'du' (you) instead of 'ich' (I). The speaker
seems to ask the hearer to take over the perspective of the speaker in
this dangerous situation. Example (2) is simply an instance of
talking with oneself. 'du' (you) refers to another part of the
speakers personality. In (3), the 2nd person singular pronoun 'du' is
used as an indefinite pronoun, it does not refer to the actual
addressee in this speech act.

(3) Leckeren Kaese kannst du in dem Laden da nicht finden.
 You cannot find delicious cheese it in that grocery store.

The 3rd person singular pronoun 'er, sie' (he, she) can be used to
refer to the hearer, but this kind of address is intended to offend
the addressee (which is a kind of surprising, because the 3rd person
singular pronoun once was used in German for a polite
address). Compare example (4):

(4) Ist er schon wieder am Noergeln ?
 He is grouching again ?

The expression in (4) might be used by a wife who would like to
express to her husband that she definitely could not stand a certain
kind of behavior. She uses 'er' (he) instead of 'du' in order to
indicate the uselessness to talk to him directly (previous
experiences) and to show him her superiority. The 1st person plural
pronoun 'wir' (we) in German can be used to refer to a 1st person
singular, as in (5) and (6).

(5) Wir haben gestern angeordnet, dass ...
 Yesterday, we gave the order that ...
(6) In einem frueheren Kapitel haben wir schon erwaehnt, dass ...
 In a previous chapter, we already have mentioned that ...

In (5), some high ranking official (ruler, king, governor etc.)
announces that he has taken some action. The use of the 1st person
plural pronoun to refer to himself in this case signals the social
and/or political superiority over the ordinary audience. (6) is an
example of the so-called editorial-we. Often, authors use the 1st
person plural pronoun in their publications to refer to themselves
which brings more dignity and authority into their writings. The 1st
person plural pronoun 'wir' (we) can also be used to refer to a 2nd
person singular or plural, compare the examples in (7) and (8).

(7) Wie fuehlen wir uns denn heute ?
 How do we feel today ?
(8) Letzte Stunde haben wir gelernt, dass ...
 Last lesson, we have learnt that ...

(7) is an example of the so-called nursery-we. Doctors, nurses or
other care takers express their strong commitment to the patients or
children they are responsible for. This use of 'wir' (we) can also be
very offending for the addressee. In example (8) a professor refers to
the previous lecture he gave. 'wir' in this case refers to the
students and does not include the professor. But, of course, using the
1st person plural pronoun, the professsor expresses his commitment to
the successful instruction of his students. Finally, I would like to
present an example where the 1st person plural is used to refer to a
3rd person plural. In uttering (9) a sports fan shows his commitment
to "his" team, although he did not participate in the game personally.

(9) Wir haben letzte Nacht das Spiel gewonnen.
 We won the game last night.

To close my list with some illustrating data, I would like to mention
the case of the so-called respect forms of address. In German, the
pronoun of the 3rd person plural 'Sie' is used as a polite form of
address. 'Sie' in this function indicates a socially distant and
formal relationship between the speaker and the hearer.

The examples I have presented so far show that personal pronouns in
German can be used with a referential meaning which deviates from
their "normal" meaning. These peripheral uses are limited to certain
contexts and they have in common that they denote some additional
meaning which has something to do with the social relation between the
speaker and the addressee or the people he refers to.

Now my questions: 1) can the same or similar effects be observed in
the use of personal pronouns in other European or Non-european
languages (if someone has some knowledge about the peripheral use of
pronouns in some exotic languages, it would be great if he or she
could share it with me) . Every example or reference is welcome. 2)
Are there other peripheral uses possible with different functional
effects ? in German ? in English ? in other languages ? 3) Do these
peripheral uses of pronouns always have the same pragmatic function,
e.g. to express commitment or social distance, or do the same
peripheral uses of personal pronouns have different pragmatic
functions in different languages (what seems to be reasonable to
expect) ?

I will post a summary of the contributions on Linguist List. Thanks in

Johannes Helmbrecht <106265,1156CompuServe.COM>
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