David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Oct 13 20:08:38 UTC 1998

Dear all,

My query, yesterday, on pronouns, has generated some interesting
discussion, and also some valuable comments addressed to me personally.
Since they're still coming in, I'll wait a bit before attempting a

In the meantime, however, there are two points which came up which I
would like to comment on.  Several claims were made to the effect that
the basic meaning of a pronoun can be determined through its history,
according to the principle whereby if it's diachronically prior, it's
synchronically basic.  I'm afraid I just don't see the logic behind
this.  Native speakers don't know the history of their language, so how
can this be relevant to a synchronic description?  And in other parts of
the world, pronoun systems do change more rapidly than perhaps they do
in Indo-European languages.  My favourite example comes from Malay /
Indonesian, where, on one island, "awak" is "we" and on another it is
"you".  Whatever "awak" meant in proto-Malayic, in at least one of the
daughter languages, it underwent a radical change in meaning.

A second, frequent suggestion was to look at agreement patterns, eg.
French "vous" IS basically plural, because it triggers plural
agreement.  But I think there's a problem here.  Let's look at a related
category, that of gender, say in a language like Hebrew, with a
garden-variety masculine-feminine distinction.  In Hebrew, most animate
masculine nouns are male, and most animate feminine nouns are female.
But there are exceptions, and it's because of these exceptions that we
distinguish between morphological categories, such as masculine /
feminine, and semantic categories, such as male / female.  Now the
problem with the agreement argument for pronouns is, I think, that it
conflates morphological and semantic categories.  Which is no doubt
related to the fact that we don't usually have distinct terms for the
two, the way we do for gender and sex.  So let's, for a moment or two,
limit the use of "singular" and "plural" to the respective semantic
categories, and (risking a few groans here) coin the terms "singuline"
and "pluraline" (rhyming mnemonically with "masculine" and "feminine")
for the corresponding morphological categories.  Now in these terms,
what the agreement facts show is that French "vous" is "pluraline", even
in those cases where, in its polite usage, it is (semantically)
singular.  (Just as in Hebrew, a small class of feminine nouns may refer
to male objects.)  But the agreement facts don't tell us anything about
the semantics of "vous", in particular whether it is semantically
unmarked for number (like most nouns in most Southeast Asian languages),
or whether it is "basically plural", with the polite singular usage
perceived (synchronically) as being of a derived, extended, or even
metaphorical nature.

(But maybe, as Frans was suggesting, this is all because I work on
languages with little history and even less morphology ;)

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

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