LINGUIST List 7.1686

Fri Nov 29 1996

Sum: Personal Pronouns

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Johannes Helmbrecht, Sum: personal pronouns

Message 1: Sum: personal pronouns

Date: Wed, 27 Nov 1996 06:05:08 EST
From: Johannes Helmbrecht <>
Subject: Sum: personal pronouns

Dear Linguists,

some weeks ago, I posted a query on LINGUIST on the
non-prototypical use of personal pronouns in European and
non-European languages. I received numerous comments and
suggestions since then, and I would like to give a brief summary
now. I would like to thank the following people for their
detailed and insightful comments and contributions (I hope I did
not forget anyone):

Glynis Baguley <>
Robert Beard <>
Gearge Bedell <>
Valery Belyanin <>
Balthasar Bickel <>
Richard Cameron <>
Peter Daniels <>
Marc Eisinger <>
Anders Eriksson <>
Soeren Harder <>
Martin Haspelmath <>
Markus Hiller <>
Roger Hurwitz <>
Ricardo Lima <>
Sebastian Loebner <>
Marc Parkvall <>
Carsten Peust <>
Paul Purdom <>
John Reighard <>
Johanna Rubba <>
Fritz Serzisko <>
Marina Yaguello <>
Larisa Zlatic <>

Before I turn over to the different contributions, I should -at
least - reproduce the examples of my original query here so that
it is easier to recall what the whole thing is all about. Besides
this, there are a number of contributions which directly refer to
one or the other numbered example sentences in my original query.

Examples (1) and (2) illustrate instances in which a 2nd person
sg pronoun refers to a 1st person sg:

(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 !

In (3) a 2nd sg pronoun is used as an indefinite pronoun:

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

In (4) a 3rd sg pronoun is used for a 2nd person reference:

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

A 1st pl pronoun is used for a 1st person sg reference 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 ...

A 1st pl pronoun is used for a 2nd person reference 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 ...

A 1st pl pronoun is used for a 3rd pl reference in (9):

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

The majority of comments agree that the non-prototypical uses of
personal pronouns -as illustrated in (1)-(9) - are also possible
in English and other European languages with approximately the
same pragmatic effects.


Peter Daniels and Paul Purdom wrote that the English translations
of the German examples show that pronouns could be used in
exactly the same way in English as in German.

Roger Hurwitz reports that the phenomenon of using 'you' to refer
to oneself is widespread in American usage, particularly by
sports personalities giving post game interviews on Radio and
TV. He assumes that
 the function of this use of 'you' is to establish a distance
"one's public persona from the private self as well as the
putting some vagueness in reference for purposes of modesty".

Glynis Baguley reports some observations with respect to the
usage of the German indefinite pronoun 'man' and its English
equivalent 'one'. "The English equivalent is of course 'one', but
it is different in that it is more or less restricted to formal
contexts, 'you' being the usual impersonal pronoun. 'One' can
substitute for the first-person singular pronoun ('One was
frightfully unhappy at boarding school'). This seems to me to be
a distancing technique - the speaker doesn't want to make a
personal statement but creates a seperate persona and attributes
his/her feelings to that persona. But it could also be
interpreted as a request for, or assumption of, solidarity with
the audience. Something that amuses me about the use of 'one' is
that people generally have great difficulty sustaining it: on the
radio one ... often hears things like: 'One wants to do one's
best to make sure that your family doesn't suffer ...'."
Furthermore, Glynis reports the usage of 'we' in a group
situation where 'we' was used to refer to a 1st person sg with
the purpose, or at least the effect, to make the addressee feel
like excluded from the group.


Soren Harder wrote that the examples for German are more or less
the same for Danish, but hints at some minor differences. For (1)
and (3), the use of the 2nd person sg pronoun in Danish is
possible, but highly unusual. Danish speaking people would -
according to Soren Harder - prefer a 3rd person indefinite
pronoun equivalent to English 'one' and German 'man'. With
regard to (4) Soren wrote: "This is possible in Danish as well,
though a bit strange". The reason seems to be that 3rd person sg
pronouns were used in the past in Denmark for the address of
subordinate people such as servants or chambermaids. This usage
is obsolet now, but perhaps still known by the speakers. Soren
also remarked that Danish seems to be similar to German with
respect to polite forms. The 3rd person plural pronoun 'De' is -
as in German - used for polite address.


Anders Eriksson wrote: "All your examples may translate to
Swedish with more or less the same meanings. They are not all
used equally frequent, though." The last remark refers to example
(4) which - according to Anders Eriksson - can be translated into
Swedish, but is an old fashioned expression in this language. "If
the expression is used at all it would, in the given context,
have the same meaning, but this usage is old fashioned in
Swedish. A couple of generations ago, however, this was the usual
way of addressing servants for example". Otherwise, addressing
someone by means of a 3rd person pronoun in Swedish is very
impolite and quite rude. With respect to polite forms of address,
Anders Eriksson mentioned the case of 'ni', a 2nd pl pronoun
which was considered a somewhat impolite and rude form of address
in the fifties, only used for individuals of lower social rank,
but which became more accepted as a form of politeness nowadays.
"Someone with a higher rank than yourself would in most cases
actually prefer to be addressed this way, but politeness is a
rather tricky and messy business in Swedish".

Mikael Parkvall provided the following comments on some of the
examples. With respect to the indefinite use of 2nd person sg
pronouns, he wrote: "2nd sg 'du' is frequently used as a generic
pronoun, and increasingly so, I feel. I personally would prefer
the generic 'man', where many others would use 'du'. Maybe that
is too simple as an explanation, but this might be due to
American influence. Thus your sentence (3) is perfectly possible
in Swedish." In addition, Mikael Parkvall made the observation
that "the generic 'man' in turn invades the domain of 1st sg
'jag'. Although I frequently use 'man' this way myself, I think
it implies a vague feeling yhat the speaker is not sure of what
he says or that he is afraid of talking too much about himself."
With respect to the 2nd person sg address by means of a 3rd
person sg pronoun, Mikael Parkvall wrote: "(4) is possible,
though archaic. This is the kind of address that would be
expected from e.g. a nobleman to a gardener in the old days. As
in German, it is slightly derogatory. An exception, though: the
members of the royal family are expected to be addressed by 'ers
majestet' (your majesty), 'kungen' (the king), 'drottningen' (the
queen), BUT when it comes to pronouns, by 3rd sg forms." With
respect to polite form in Swedish, Mikael Parkvall gave the
following comments: " As for the polite use of 2nd pl 'ni' for
2nd sg 'du', this was the rule in Swedish until the 1960s, when a
very sudden change came about, and everybody started saying 'du'
to each other. 2nd pl usage with singular reference was virtually
extinct, except perhaps when addressing elderly people. ... As
conservative opinions grew stronger in the 1980s/1990s, some
people have attempted to reintroduce the 'ni'. Even I (I am only
25 years old) now occasionally encounter shop clerks who say 'ni'
to me (which I strongly dislike - I perceive it as a very
artificial politeness). The reintroduced 'ni' seems to have lost
its value of formality and distance to those who now use it; it
seems like these young shop clerks now interpret it as a marker
of politeness and nothing else."


Marc Eisinger wrote that the most examples together with their
interpretations could also be found in French. But the use of a
2nd person sg pronoun for a 1st person reference as illustrated
in (1) and (2) seems to be restricted in French. "For (1) and (2)
this use is limited to southern French (I am from Marseille)
where the 'tu' is often used for a narrative instead of 'je':
'Alors tu descend l'escalier et puis tu tombes' (So you go down
the stairs and then you fall)." This use of 'tu' (with reference
to the 1st person) is familiar and used primarily in unusual or
weird stories. With respect to (9) - the example where a 1st pl
is used to refer to a 3rd pl - Marc Eisinger disagrees with my
interpretation, he wrote: 'nous avons gagne' hier soir' is a real
'we' as I feel part of my team. Maybe we French would say 'on a
gagne' hier soir' with a more distant 'on'".

Marina Yaguello gave the following comments. In general, the
non-prototypical uses of personal pronouns are similar in
French. But there are also some differences. According to Marina
Yaguello the 3rd person sg in French is "commonly used by doctors
and nurses to address patients and it is obviously a mark of
condescension: 'Alors, comment va-t-elle aujourd'hui ?'. The 1st
person pl is used in a similar way but denotes cheerfulness and
sympathy rather than condescension. Although it reveals a
lop-sided relationship, too, i.e. power over the addressee:
'comment allons nous aujourd'hui ?'. The indefinite pronoun 'on'
is also frequently used in this case. Note that it is often used
in contexts that are threatening to the addressee as in 'Alors,
on refuse de cooperer ? meaning 'you better cooperate, or else
...'". As in the previous cited contribution by Marc Eisinger,
Marina Yaguello would expect the use of the indefinite pronoun
'on' in the French version of example (9), 'on a gagne'. 'Nous
avons gagne' would sound weird in her ears, because it is too

John Reighart provided the following comments on some pronoun
uses in Canadian French: "In Quebec French, 'tu' (2nd sg
familiar) is regularly used as a generic subject (...) 'Quand tu
vois ca, tu te dis Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un gouvernement ? (When
one sees that, one wonders "What's a gouvernment ?"). This is of
course reminiscent of the English usage of 'you' as a generic
subject". Both, John Reighart and Marina Yaguello mentioned the
fact that in most varieties of contemporary French 'on'
(indefinite pronoun) replaces 'nous' (1st pl pronoun).


With respect to Brazilian Portuguese, John Reighard wrote: "The
feminine sg noun phrase 'a gente' (people) regularly replaces 1st
person plural 'nos'. ... In most areas of Brazil the 2nd sg
familiar 'tu' has been replaced by the 2nd sg polite form 'voce^'
(historically derived from the noun phrase 'vossa excelle^ncia'
(your excellency)) which exists in all varieties of Portuguese,
as far as I know, and which, when subject, always takes the 3rd
person sg verb form. Interestingly, 'te' (2nd sg familiar)
continues to be used as indirect object in Brazil." With regard
to the 2nd person pl pronoun 'vos' John Reighard wrote that it
has diappeared completely. It has been replaced by the 2nd person
polite form 'voce^s', a plural analogue of 'voce^'. These changes
in the pronominal paradigms had also some effects on the
inflectional paradigms of the Portuguese verb. "The result ... is
that the six forms of the Latin inflectional paradigm - 1st, 2nd,
3rd person sg and pl - are reduced to three: 1st, 3rd sg, 3rd pl
(with 1st pl perhaps on the way out)." I will repeat the complete
reference John Reighard mentioned (Anthony J. Naro 1981) below.

Ricardo Lima confirmed that all non-prototypical uses of personal
pronouns illustrated in the query could also be transformed into
Brazilian Portuguese. In addition, he mentioned the case that in
certain contexts it is possible to refer to oneself by means of a
3rd person sg pronoun.


With regard to Argentine Spanish, John Reighard wrote: " I would
also mention Argentine (and a few other varieties of Latin
American) Spanish, characterized by 'voseo': the use of 'vos'
(originally 2nd pl) in place of 'tu' (originally 2nd sg
familiar). In Argentine Spanish ... when 'vos' is subject, it
takes a modified form of the old 2nd person pl verb." Further, he
mentioned that in Argentine the 2nd person sg familiar 'te' is
still used as the direct and indirect object pronoun
corresponding to 'vos'. These changes in the pronominal
paradigms are described in Franch & Blecua 1988 (see below).


Valery Belyanin focused his attention on the different uses of
the 1st person pl pronoun in Russian. "In Russian, a doctor may
say to a patient "what are we complaining today ?" which is just
a polite and indifferent form of a tired doctor. But, if he is
addressing an old woman "Well, what are we complaining today ?"
it will mean: I got used to your complaints, now tell me - my
poor patient - what is your foolish illness today." According to
Belyanin the same question directed to a child would mean that
the doctor tries to show that he wants to be a father who takes
care of his kid and who consoles him or her. A similar effect can
be observed when the director of a company uses 'we' as in "Well,
what has happened to us yesterday ?" in directing this question
to a worker. The context may be that the director has heard about
some personal problems of this worker. Another use of the 1st pl
pronoun is mentioned by Valery Belyanin, namly when a girl
addresses the following utterances to a young man: 'How beautiful
we are today !' or 'Oh, we are wearing a necktie'. Both
utterances imply that the girl is still treating the young man as
a little boy.

Robert Beard commented in a more general way to the examples in
the query. He wrote: "To the extent the phenomena you indicate
are grammatical, I have written extensively on them in
'Lexeme-Morpheme Base Morphology 1995 (see references below). The
first set of examples you give is the use of an impersonal
'du'. Polish and Russian use 3rd sg neuter, German also has a
special pronoun 'man' and French 'on', English 'one' for the same
function which is essentially no function at all. This is simply
a morphological means of marking a verb which has not been
assigned person number".


Larisa Zlatic confirmed that all the examples from German "can be
translated into Serbian (my native language) with almost
identical pragmatic functions". In addition she mentioned the use
of a proper name such as 'mama' to refer to a 1st person
sg. Interestingly, the possessive pronoun which is coreferential
with the proper name does not agree in the category of person, it
is the 1st person possessive pronoun.


Carsten Peust wrote that there is no person deixis which
differentiates different degrees of social distance (polite form
versus familiar form), and he mentions that there is no pluralis
majestatis in the speeches of pharao. Despite this absence of
polite forms, Carsten Peust found some instances of a 2nd person
sg address by means of a 3rd sg pronoun in some letters. It seems
to be the case that this way of address is possible only for
people which are higher ranking than oneself. But this is by no
means a grammaticalized feature of the pronominal paradigms of


Fritz Serzisko wrote that "in Ik (Kuliak, Nilo-Saharan) the
second person pronoun may be used in stories to indicate the
hero. The use is not entirely understood but it occurs frequently
enough to be more than just an idiosyncratic feature".

KIRANTI (Sino-Tibetian):

Balthasar Bickel mentioned the fact that in Kiranti languages,
pronominal affixes and independent pronouns of the 1st person
inclusive are systematically used for a generic ('indefinite')


George Bedell discussed the use of English personal pronouns in
motion picture titles, where there is no discourse context to
establish their reference. For George Bedell, pronouns in titles
such as 'It came from beneath the sea', 'They were expendable' or
'I was a teenage werewolf' are used in a peripheral way, but do
not express commitment or social distance. With respect to
Japanese, he wrote: "In Japanese one might mention the use of
'kare' (he/him) and 'kanojo' (she/her) as derived nouns meaning
roughly boyfriend and girlfriend. There might be commitment here,
but there are difficult questions of interpretation. These forms
are relatively recent in the language, and Japanese pronouns of
all types behave rather differently than pronouns in
English. Thus, for example, 'kare' and 'kanojo' may not be bound
by quantifiers in sentences like *'Daremo kare/kanojo ga tensai
da to omou' (Everyone thinks he/she is a genius). This sentence
would be fine with a zero pronoun.

Markus Hiller reports about some dialectal variation in the
personal reference of the Japanese reflexive pronoun
'zibun'. This reflexive pronoun, when used without an antecedent,
can refer to a 1st person or to a 2nd person depending on the
dialect. A sentence like 'zibun-wa, dou desu ka ?' means in the
dialect of Toukyou 'And what's the matter with me ?', and in the
dialect of Oosaka 'And how are you ?' Another instance of some
dialectal variation in the personal reference is provided by
Markus Hiller. In Japanese, there are some verbs with the meaning
'give' which are also used as auxiliaries in order to add a
benefactive argument to the case frame of the main verb. One of
these verbs, 'ageru', marks an action from 1st to a 2nd person,
or from a 1st to a 3rd person or from a 2nd to a 3rd person. So,
the sentence 'ayamatte age-nasai' means in standard Japanese 'you
have to apologize to her/him !', while the same sentence in
Oosaka means 'you have to apologize to me !'.


	from Sebastian Loebner:
Muehlhaeusler/ Harre 1990. Pronouns and People. Oxford.

	from Robert Beard:
Beard Robert, 1995. Lexeme-Morpheme Base Morphology. Albany, NY
(SUNY Press).

	from Richard Cameron:
with respect to 1st pl 'we' as 1st sg 'I':

Drew, P. and J. Heritage. 1992. Analyzing talk at work: an
	introduction. In their Talk at Work. Cambridge U.Press. pp.3-65
	(page 30)

for 3rd pl subjects as 1st pl in Spanish:

Hurtado, Alfredo 1985. The unagreement hypothesis. In Larry King
	and Catherine Maley (eds) Selected papers from the XIII'th
	linguistic symposion on Romance languages. Philadelphia
	(Benjamins) pp.187-211.

for nonspecific/generic uses of 2nd sg in various languages:

Bolinger, Dwight 1979. To catch a metaphor: You as norm. in:
	American Speech 54:194-209.

Cameron, Richard 1996. A community based test of a linguistic
	hypothesis. in: Language in Society 25:61-111.

Cameron, Richard (forthcoming) Accessibility theory in a Variable
	syntax of Spanish. in: Journal of Pragmatics (late 97 or early

Hernanz, Maria Lluisa 1990 En torno a los sujetos arbitrarios: La
	2a persona sigular. In: Violeta Demonte and Beatriz Cuaron (eds.)
	Estudios de linguistica de Espan~a y Mexico. Universidad nacional
	Autonoma de Mexico. pp.151-178.

Kitagawa, C. and A. Lehrer 1990. Impersonal uses of personal
	pronouns. in: Journal of Pragmatics 14:739-759.

Laberge, Suzanne and Gillian Sankoff. 1986. Anything YOU can
	do. In: G.Sankoff The social life of language. University of
	Pennsylvania Press pp.271-293.

Morales, Amparo. 1995. The loss of the Spanish impersonal
	particle se among bilinguals: A descriptive profile. In: Carmen
	Silva-Corvalan (ed) Spanish in four continents: Studies in
	language contact and bilingualism. Georgetown
	U.Press. pp.148-162.

Vila, Maria Rosa. 1987. La segunda persona gramatical en funcion
	no deictica. In: Revista Espan~ola de Linguistica 17:57-68.

	from Johanna Rubba:

Hanks, W. 1990 Referential Practice: Language and lived space
	among the Maya. University of Chicago Press. Rubba, J. in
	press. Alternate grounds in the interpretation of deictic
	expressions. In: G.Fauconnier and E.Sweetser (eds.) Spaces,
	Worlds and Grammar. University of Chicago Press.

	from Martin Haspelmath
Martin Haspelmath mentioned an article to me from Shmelev &
Bulygina about the use of ty and vy in Russian as generic/
indefinite pronouns.

	from John Reighard

On the historical changes in the personal paradigms in Brazilian
Portuguese and Latin American Spanish:

Naro, Anthony J. 1981. The social and structural dimensions of a
	syntactic change. In: Language 57:63-98.

Franch, Juan Alcina & Jose Manuel Blecua 1988. Gramatica
	espan~iola. Barcelona (Ariel).

Here I close my summary on the non-prototypical use of personal
pronouns. It was interesting and inspiring to read the
contributions I received during the last weeks. I hope my summary
does not ignore or miss the points the authors wanted to make.

I did not reproduce the majority of example sentences of the
different languages, but if someone has a special interest in
examples in one or the other language, it will be a pleasure for
me to send him the data I have received. If someone got - while
reading this summary - new ideas about the whole topic, or some
additional date came into his or her mind, I would be glad if you
share it with me.

All the best


Johannes Helmbrecht
Rittershausstr. 26
D-53113 Bonn, Germany
Tel. +49 228 229760
e-mail: <106265,1156Compuserve.COM>
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