query on pronouns

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Oct 13 01:12:07 UTC 1998

First, apologies to those of you whom I've already bored with this

This query is about pronouns, and how linguists and grammarians decide
on assigning them features such as person and number.  Two specific
questions, and then a more general one:

(1) We all agree that English "you" is 2nd person, and that "generic"
usages (eg. "If YOU eat a lot of carrots, YOU're more likely to retain
good eyesight") are somehow secondary or derivative.  My question is:
what objective arguments can be adduced in support of the above claim?
(Your own ideas, or references to published ones, equally appreciated.)

(2) In languages such as French and Russian, with distinct singular and
plural 2nd person pronouns, we are taught that the plural pronouns,
French "vous" and Russian "vy", can also be used in singular contexts,
with an associated implicature of politeness.  My question is:  on what
grounds is the above analysis adopted, instead of an alternative one,
whereby, in French and Russian, "vous" and "vy" are simply unmarked for
number, while their counterparts "tu" and "ty" are marked as singular
and familiar.  (Again, your own ideas, or references to published ones,
equally appreciated.)

Examples such as the above can be multiplied, eg. the royal "WE are not
amused", or the generic "There's somebody on the phone asking for THEIR
money back"; and they seem to be quite a mixed bag.  My real interest is
in the general question:  On what systematic and objective grounds (as
opposed to tradition and/or fuzzy intuitions) are we able to distinguish
between "primary / underlying / basic" meanings of pronouns and
"secondary / derivative / extended" ones.

The reason I'm interested is as follows.  I'm currently doing field work
in Malay/Indonesian dialects, where the pronoun systems seem to differ
strikingly from place to place.  (Actually, it's not at all clear to
what extent it makes sense to talk of pronouns as a distinct grammatical
category in these dialects, as many of the forms in question are at
least diachronically kinship terms or other similar common nouns.)  My
gut feeling is that the kind of "derivative" interpretations
exemplified, arguably, by the English, French and Russian examples
above, are much more pervasive in Malay/Indonesian; however, it's easy
to imagine how frequent usage may in some instances lead to
grammaticalization and reanalysis of an "extended" meaning as a basic
one.  What I'm looking for is some kind of objective "tool-kit" of
criteria that would help me to distinguish between "primary" and
"secondary" meanings, in order to be able to come up with descriptive
paradigms for the pronoun systems of Malay/Indonesian dialects.

Any, comments, ideas, or bibliographical references would be greatly


David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22
D-04103 Leipzig

tel:  49-341-9952310
fax:  49-341-9952119
email:  gil at eva.mpg.de

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