From: Peter de Swart <p.deswartlet.ru.nl>
Subject: Pronominal Gender in English
E-mail this message to a friend
Discuss this message
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/19/19-643.html
AUTHOR: Siemund, PeterTITLE: Pronominal Gender in EnglishSUBTITLE: A Study of English Varieties from a Cross-Linguistic PerspectiveSERIES TITLE: Routledge Studies in Germanic LinguisticsPUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)YEAR: 2008
Peter de Swart, Center for Language and Cognition Groningen, University ofGroningen (the Netherlands)
SUMMARYThis book presents a revised version of the author's postdoctoral dissertation(Habilitationsschrift, Freie Universität Berlin). It provides an in-depth studyof pronominal gender in English with particular focus on the use of animatepronouns (he, she) for inanimate referents. This is done by investigating thedistribution of pronominal forms in different varieties of English which in turnare put in a wider cross-linguistic perspective. The goal of the book is to showthat this distribution is subject to essentially the same principles in allvarieties of English. The study assumes a variationist approach and combines itwith a functional-typological perspective. At the same time it touches onvarious other disciplines in linguistics, such as sociolinguistics andhistorical linguistics.
Chapter 1-IntroductionThe introductory chapter presents the roadmap to the book introducing theproblem, major claims, and background information. First, it exemplifies andformulates the problem central to the study: the use of animate pronouns (he,she) for inanimate referents and vice versa (i.e. the use of 'it' for animatereferents) in different varieties of English. It is indicated that the book isbasically concerned with the former alternation. Its main objective is toexplain the use of 'he/she' instead of 'it' and to a lesser extent thedistribution of masculine and feminine pronouns across different domains of theinanimate world. The basic claim introduced by the author is that pronominalgender in English basically depends on the degree of individuation of thereferent. When individuation is conceptualized as a hierarchy or continuum, hepredicts that animate pronouns enter the hierarchy from the left whereasinanimates do so from the right. Moreover, it is predicted that most cut-offpoints on the hierarchy are attested. The chapter continues with an illustrationof the phenomenon under discussion from other Germanic and Romance languages,some discussion of the status of the category of gender in English (the authorclaims that there is no conclusive evidence for the existence of such a categoryand therefore speaks of pronominal gender), and a note on the historicaldevelopment of the English gender system which shows that the language developeda semantic gender system from a morphophonological one and that pronominalreference related to semantic gender existed already in Old English times. Thenext two sections introduce the sources for the variation data used in the studyand the generalizations about the distribution of pronominal forms which havebeen based on them. In the final section the author discusses how hisvariationist approach ties in with the methodology of functional typology. Heclaims that his study shows several commonalities with traditional typologicalstudies. Both systematically compare one specific grammatical domain acrossdifferent varieties/languages and they share the assumption that the observedvariation is systematic. Finally, he argues that the study of varieties of alanguage can make an important contribution to typology as it makes theempirical basis of typological studies more complete.
In chapters 2 to 6 the author presents the data and distribution of pronominalforms in different varieties of English.
Chapter 2-The Southwest of EnglandThis chapter discusses pronominal usage in the southwest of England, inparticular the variety spoken in West Somerset. The choice for this dialect areais motivated by the amount of information available, in the words of the author''it is the single most profoundly investigated dialect area of Great Britain''(p.19). Most importantly, this variety has been argued to draw a clear-cutdistinction between count nouns and mass nouns, using animate for the former andinanimates for the latter. The author shows that a similar pattern can be foundthroughout Great Britain in this way becoming ''a characteristic of all, or atleast most, dialects of Great Britain'' (p.23). However, West Somerset Englishhas generalized the usage to the greatest extent and has the most data availabletherefore becoming the focus of the remainder of this chapter. First the authorprovides some background information on West Somerset English grammar throughthe discussion of a number of phenomena related to the mass/count distinctionand the pronominal system. Section 2.2 presents an in-depth study of pronominalusage in 19th-century West Somerset English on the basis of approximately 1000pronominal references from Elworthy's (1886) _West Somerset Word Book andGlossary_. These data show that the proposed generalization does not holdcategorically. One finds both masculine pronouns replacing mass nouns and neuterpronouns replacing count nouns. The former exceptions are only found withconcrete nouns showing that the mass/count distinction does not hold forabstract nouns which are always taken up by 'it'. Support for count agreement ofanimate pronouns is also found in a study of poetry texts although somedifferences emerge as well: the neuter pronoun is used both for count and massnouns and the author finds use of animate pronouns for abstract nouns. In thefinal part of the chapter the author compares his findings from 19th-centuryWest Somerset English with pronominal usage in modern (20th Century) English ofthe Southwest. The conclusion is that the pattern found in West Somerset extendsacross the southwest of England although the system is in serious decline. Datafrom the British National Corpus even seem to suggest that the traditionalsouthwestern system has become extinct.
Chapter 3-NewfoundlandIn this chapter the author provides a short discussion of pronominal usage inthe variety of English spoken in Newfoundland, Canada. The system ofNewfoundland English shows parallels with that of Southwest England which canprobably be traced back to the fact that many settlers came from that area andexported their system of pronominal gender. In contrast to the southwest ofEngland, Newfoundland English still uses this traditional system nowadays. Onthe basis of two previous studies, the author shows that this variety followsthe pattern found in West Somerset English: animate pronouns are used forconcrete countable nouns and the neuter pronoun for mass nouns and abstractnouns. He finds some examples of the masculine pronoun being used for abstractnouns but they involve only a handful of count nouns (e.g. 'poem', 'song')making this a phenomenon of restricted scope. The one point in whichNewfoundland English differs substantially from West Somerset English is theexistence of an additional split in the category of inanimate concrete countnouns. Within this category a distinction is made between nouns that are mobile('boat', 'car', 'areoplane') which are referred to with the feminine pronoun andones that are non-mobile ('paddle', 'wheel', 'wing') which are referred to withthe masculine pronoun. The author discusses two hypotheses as to the origin ofthis additional distinction: (i) it is a remnant of the imported variety fromSouthwest England, as argued by Paddock (1991); (ii) it is a development ofNewfoundland English due to contact with other English dialects spoken inNewfoundland, as argued by Wagner (2004). He favors the second proposal as theredoes not seem to be any evidence for the first in the traditional dialects fromSouthwest England, but there is evidence that in North-American English femininepronouns can be used for all sorts of things including moving objects.
Chapter 4-Tasmania and other parts of AustraliaThe use of animate, in particular feminine, pronouns for inanimate referents invarieties of Australian English is mentioned in many dictionaries and handbooksof (Australian) English. There is, however, an enormous scarcity of systematicstudies of this phenomenon. The one exception is Tasmanian English, a varietywhich is also different in morphophonological and other syntactic features withrespect to (standard) Australian English. In this chapter, the author embarks ona systematic study of pronominal usage in this variety of Australian English onthe basis of recordings of natural and spontaneous conversations made by AndrewPawley. He shows that the Tasmanian system parallels that found in SouthwestEngland and Newfoundland in the pronominalization of inanimate count nouns byanimate pronouns. He observes a strong cline from concrete count nouns toabstract nouns such that nouns with concrete reference are considerably morelikely to be pronominalized by animate pronouns than those with abstractreference. The difference with the previously discussed varieties is thatTasmanian Vernacular English makes extensive use of feminine forms instead ofmasculine ones. The author shows that the semantic domains in which masculinepronouns are used are extremely restricted, including animals of male andunknown sex, plants and trees. Furthermore, some semantic domains (e.g. food anddrinks) show optionality of feminine versus neuter pronoun use. Discussion ofdata from other regions of Australian English mainly support the generalizationsmade for Tasmanian Vernacular English.
Chapter 5-Informal spoken American EnglishThis chapter presents an excursion into pronominal usage in some informal spokenvarieties of American English. It aims to show that the fundamental claim of thebook (i.e. pronominal gender depends on the degree of individuation of thereferent) has relevance above and beyond specific regional varieties of English.This is done by re-evaluating the data from a sociolinguistic study by Matthiot(1979), who collected data in the Los Angeles area and in Buffalo. Thesociolinguistic hypothesis tested by Mathiot was whether the use of 'he' and'she' reflects the (emotional) attitude of the speaker. She assumes that the useof animate pronouns for inanimate nouns is tantamount to the upgrading orassimilation of a non-human entity to a human being. Moreover, she concludesthat there are probably no restrictions on the kinds of non-human entities thatallow upgrading. The author of the present study aims to show that the dataallow for a reinterpretation in terms of individuation of the referent. He showsthat indeed animate pronouns are mainly used for individuated inanimate nouns.Furthermore, a grouping of the data in terms of semantic domains shows that some(e.g. animals of unknown sex) are regularly masculine, others are feminine (e.g.environment), and that for some domains (e.g. tools and instruments) pronounchoice depends on the sex of the speaker. Thus, the author concludes that theusage of pronominal gender in informal spoken American English is moresystematic than previously assumed.
Chapter 6-Fictional textsThis chapter presents data on pronominal usage from written texts making use ofthe approximately 300 examples of animate pronouns used for inanimate referentsin a study by Svartengren (1927). The data consist of created examples ofinformal speech from novels written in the English language. The examples onlycontain feminine pronouns to the exclusion of masculine ones and in certaincases the animated usage may be analyzed as a stylistic effect. Notwithstandingthese differences with the earlier discussed spoken data, the author wants toshow in this chapter that the data from fictional texts by and large align withthe data from the other varieties. Where Svartengren proposes that the use ofanimate pronouns for inanimate referents signals a special attitude of thespeaker towards those referents, he also raises the suspicion that individuationmight play an important role. In order to test this hypothesis the authoranalyzes almost all examples discussed by Svartengren which contain mostly countnouns, some mass nouns, and a considerable amount of abstract nouns making theratio of animate pronouns with reference to mass and abstract concepts muchhigher in fictional texts than in the naturally occurring data. Nevertheless,the author concludes that despite these differences the general trend found inthe other varieties is also present in fictional texts: animate pronouns pickout inanimate referents ranking high in terms of individuation.
Chapter 7-Generalizations across varieties of EnglishThe goal of Chapter 7 is to pull together the commonalities linking pronominalgender across different varieties of English. It starts with a recapitulation ofpronoun usage in the regional varieties of Southwest England, Newfoundland, andTasmania, which shows that all three use animate pronouns for concrete countnouns with possible further distinctions within the category of inanimates, andthe neuter pronoun for mass or abstract nouns. In the second section the authorpresents the following hierarchy or continuum of individuation as ''a useful aidfurnishing our understanding of these systems'' (p.140): proper names > humans >animals > inanimate tangible objects > abstracts > mass nouns. The systems ofthe regional varieties discussed in the book can be directly mapped onto thishierarchy and each establishes a different cut-off point. The author argues thatthe use of this hierarchy has several advantages. It can be used to assess thedegree in which regional varieties differ from standard English throughcomparison of cut-off points. It has predictive power concerning generaldistributional patterns: due to the Semantic Map Connectivity Hypothesis onlysystems with a contiguous or connected area in the hierarchy are expected tooccur and those that divide the semantic space underlying the hierarchy in morethan two parts are ruled out. Finally, the hierarchy is an explanatoryinstrument which has proven its usefulness in several other domains of grammarin this way raising the problem of pronominal gender to a more general andabstract level. At the same time, the author also voices some concerns in usingthe hierarchy as an explanation. First, the hierarchy is an inductivegeneralization and therefore an explanation in terms of it 'must perforce remainrelatively weak' (p. 143). Second, there does not seem to be a motivation forthe relationship between grammatical marking and the hierarchy of individuation.Here the author concurs that ''if the hierarchy of individuation couldconvincingly be shown to have basis in human perception or cognition in general,which I believe it has, this would certainly increase the possibility of itbeing used as an explanatory tool for the analysis of grammatical distinctions.Nevertheless, even if such an analogy can be established, it does notnecessarily follow that grammatical marking obeys the hierarchy of individuationjust because human cognition is based on this hierarchy'' (p. 144). The chaptercloses with a section arguing that pronominal usage in informal spoken AmericanEnglish as well as in fictional texts is in harmony with the hierarchy ofindividuation.
Chapter 8-Modern Standard EnglishIn general the system of pronominal gender in Modern Standard English has aclear semantic basis involving animacy and sex of the referent. Nevertheless,there's also a certain amount of variability and this chapter is concerned withthose nouns for which variation in pronoun usage is possible. The chapter startsoff with a discussion of the relationship between specific and generic referenceand high versus low degree in individuation. In section 8.1 the author discussesand rejects the postulation of a category of gender in English. After a shortoverview of nouns for which the use of gendered pronouns is invariable (e.g.'man', 'woman', 'king', 'queen'), a description of nouns for which variablepronoun usage is possible follows. Within the class of human referring nouns wefind the so-called personal dual gender nouns (e.g. 'parent', 'friend') whichallow both masculine and feminine reference, common gender nouns (e.g. 'child', 'baby') which allow anaphoric reference with animate and neuter pronouns, andcollective nouns for which the neuter pronoun or plural 'they' can be used. Theother two classes are nouns referring to animals and inanimates referring nounswhich are the central concern of the book. The final section of the chapterpresents a review of proposed factors influencing pronoun usage, includingpersonification and sympathy of the speaker, and through the discussion of twoempirical studies aims to show that the variation in pronoun usage is determinedby a few well-defined constraints, with special reference to individuation. Thefirst study by MacKay and Konishi (1980) investigates the use of animate andinanimate pronouns for non-human antecedents in children's literature. Theyexamine the correlation of pronoun use with six variables some of which(specificity, centrality) seem to be related to the notion of individuation asadvanced by the author. He concludes that the variation between animate andinanimate pronouns ''is more complex than is usually assumed to be the case andgoes beyond a simple contrast in terms of animacy'' (p. 169). The second studyreported is by Newman and contrasts the use of 'he/she' with that of 'they'. Itshows that the choice between the two options is not only related to the wish tomaintain sex-neutrality but also to individuation. It shows that the singularpronouns pattern with referents high in individuation, whereas 'they' patternswith those low in individuation. The conclusion the author draws from thediscussion in this chapter is that although the pronominal gender system ofModern Standard English is based on relatively simple semantic principles, italso has its intricacies.
Chapter 9-A Cross-Linguistic View on English VarietiesThis chapter puts the use of pronominal gender in English in a widercross-linguistic perspective. It contains two sections on Germanic languages,one on Romance languages, and a third one on other languages. The scope of thestudy is all agreement triggered by a nominal head that involves contrasts whichcan be related to the hierarchy of individuation. In the first section onGermanic the author presents data from varieties of Germanic which exhibit asystem of pronominal gender based on the mass/count distinction comparable tothe ones reported for English. The dialects and languages discussed include theDanish dialect spoken in West Jutland, the variety of Frisian spoken onHelgoland, Dutch, and Afrikaans. The next section shows that in many Germaniclanguages and dialects the assignment of a noun to a particular gender class canbe partially motivated by the mass/count distinction and the hierarchy ofindividuation. The section on Romance languages shows that central Italiandialects make a distinction within the non-feminine gender between count(masculine) and mass (neuter) nouns which is signaled on articles,demonstratives, pronouns, and adjectives. Likewise, in Asturian Spanish there ismass/count agreement on pronouns and adjectives. The final section of thechapter presents data from a wide variety of languages illustrating genderagreement influenced by the degree of individuation of the noun (e.g. in Arabicand Bantu), the correlation between gender and the mass/count distinction (e.g.in Bantu and Daghestanian), and gender systems organized on the basis of theanimate/inanimate distinction (e.g. Algonquian and Niger-Congo).
Chapter 10-The Categorial Status of Pronominal Mass/Count AgreementThe aim of this chapter is to contribute to the correct categorization ofagreement systems based on the mass/count distinction. Previously these havebeen analyzed in terms of gender or number but the author wants to argue thatthey possess certain aspectualizing functions as well. He first points out thata conception of the mass/count distinction in terms of a binary oppositionassociated with different nominal entries in the lexicon cannot hold true.Instead, the mass/count distinction seems to be a property of noun occurrences.Mass/count agreement systems are often interpreted in terms of gender, theauthor argues that such an analysis is problematic for several reasons includingthe fact that mass/count gender systems are rare cross-linguistically and onlyinvolve pronouns whose deictic use is not compatible with an agreement categorylike gender, but most importantly the fact that the mass/count distinction isnot a lexical property of nouns. A similar story holds for the interpretation ofthe systems as number systems. From this discussion, the author concludes that''the mass/count agreement systems at issue here are more likely to be analyzedas number systems than as gender systems'' (p. 236). Finally, the author putsforward an analysis of the mass/count agreement systems in terms of nominalaspect. This is inspired by the fact that speakers can use pronominal agreementto portray an entity as individuated or non-individuated. This is reminiscent ofverbal aspect which can be used to express different perspectives on asituation. Moreover, there is a close semantic relationship between verbalaspect and the mass/count distinction. Nevertheless interpretation of thesemass/count agreement systems in terms of nominal aspect remains questionable onboth formal and distributional grounds. The conclusion of this chapter must thenbe that 'we cannot but admit that the mass/count systems discussed in this studyapparently have some properties of gender systems, number systems and perhapseven aspectual systems' (p. 241).
Chapter 11-Conclusion and OutlookThe final chapter of this study summarizes the previous chapters and presentssome open issues and loose ends including historical, sociolinguistic andtheoretical problems.
EVALUATIONSiemund's book is a well-written and clearly structured study. With itsaccessible style and explanatory clarity the book is extremely reader friendly.Throughout the book the author displays an impressive patience in hisdescriptions of previous research and the discussion of the data, and almostnowhere does he rush to premature conclusions. Altogether this makes for anextremely readable book. Also content-wise there is much of interest. For one,the book establishes that the distribution of pronominal gender forms in thevarieties of English is much more complex, and hence much more interesting, thanone might think at first sight. As with any other publication, some issuesremain that deserve further discussion, two of which will be addressed below.
In my opinion, the kind of variation data used by the author are at the sametime the strongest and weakest part of the book. It is astonishing to see thekind of robust patterns recurring in such a diverse collection of data setswhich have hardly anything in common in terms of genre, style, register or theway in which the data have been collected. The emergence of such cleargeneralizations from such a heterogeneous data set seems to strongly support thegrammatical relevance and reality of the phenomenon under discussion. One can,however, bargain about the presentation, interpretation and comparison of thedifferent data sets examined. My main objection concerns the fact that theauthor only presents tables with counts and percentages but does not corroboratehis findings by the use of statistics. Instead the reader is often presentedwith impressionistic descriptions of the data and qualifications such as ''thereis no significant (in the non-technical sense) difference'' (p. 111) which arerendered rather meaningless without a proper grounding. Although I am aware thatstatistical modeling is not everyone's cup of tea, I believe the data analysisand conclusions presented in the book could have benefited from some descriptivestatistics and simple tests (chi-square, Fisher's exact). More importantly,given that the different data sets are hardly comparable and numbers within datasets often highly skewed, application of such methods would have allowed theauthor to draw stronger conclusions than he was able to do now in many instances.
Statistical methods might also have been of help in finding a solution to thesecond point of discussion which is the definition of the notion ofindividuation. Although the concept of individuation is very central to thebook, its definition seems to change from chapter to chapter. As stated inchapter 1 and detailed in chapter 7 individuation is conceptualized in terms ofa hierarchy ranging from proper names to mass nouns, cf. above. The distinctionin the hierarchy most relevant to pronominal usage in the varieties of Englishis that between count and mass nouns. However, in many instances thisdistinction does not suffice and further parameters, with no place on thehierarchy, are needed, e.g. the notion of mobile in Newfoundland English. Inchapter 8 the author himself notes that maintaining his line of argumentation interms of individuation ''necessitates a concept of individuation thatsignificantly goes beyond undisputed notions (or qualities) like discreteness orboundedness ... Many of the factors discussed there can plausibly be subsumedunder the notion of 'individuation''' (p. 163). Instead of subsuming all kinds ofdifferent factors under the notion of individuation one could also keep thisnotion simple and investigate how its interaction with these other factorsresults in the observed patterns. Although under the latter scenario it may seemthat there is no unified explanation for the phenomenon of pronoun usage, onecan wonder how unified the explanation is with a broad notion of individuation.Whichever way one chooses, and I would opt for the latter, I think statisticalmethods may help to elucidate and to better understand pronominal usage in thevarieties of English.
The kind of micro-typological approach advocated by the author is still in itsinfancy. In his book he has demonstrated that the combination of thismethodology with a variationist approach can result in new and interesting factsabout the grammar of a well-studied language like English. These empiricalresults make a strong case for the methods applied in the book to be used infuture research. I am convinced that taking into account the remarks raisedabove this will yield many more interesting results.
REFERENCESElworthy, F.T. (1886). _The West Somerset Word-Book and Glossary_. Vaduz:Kraus Reprint LTD.
MacKay, D. and T. Konishi. (1980). Personification and the pronoun problem._Women’s Studies International Quarterly_ 3, 149-163.
Matthiot, M. (1979). Sex roles as revealed through referential gender inAmerican English. In: M. Matthiot (ed.), _Ethnolinguistics: Boas, Sapir andWhorf revisited_. The Hague: Mouton, 1-47.
Paddock, H. (1991). The actuation problem for gender change in Wessex andNewfoundland. In: P. Trudgill and J. K. Chambers (eds), _Dialects of English:Studies in Grammatical Variation_. London: Longman, 29-46.
Svartengren, T. (1927). The femine gender for inanimate things inAnglo-American. _American Speech_ 3, 83-113.
Wagner, S. (2004). Gender in English Pronouns: Myth and Reality.http://deposit.ddb.de/cgi-bin/dokserv?idn=97211100x.
ABOUT THE REVIEWERPeter de Swart received his PhD in Linguistics from the Radboud UniversityNijmegen, the Netherlands in November 2007. His dissertation entitled''Cross-linguistic variation in object marking'' examines the influence ofsemantic features, in particular animacy, on the marking of direct objects.Until the end of 2008 he continued his research as a postdoctoral researcher inan NWO financed project 'animacy' at the same university. Since January 2009 heis a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Language and Cognition Groningenof the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. In his NWO VENI-project ''Thestatus of hierarchies in language production and comprehension'' he investigatesthe role of hierarchies of individuation in grammar and use.