describing pronoun meanings

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Oct 16 13:42:55 UTC 1998

David Gil asked:

"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."

I think that to some extent the question is put in the wrong way. Why
should there be a synchronic hierarchical relationship among the various
uses of a linguistic unit, such that one is primary, the other is
secondary? I think there is no good theoretical reason for assuming that
this should be the case in general.

Of course, there are *practical* reasons for pretending that there is --
describing a language is easier if one highlights certain uses and
backgrounds others (anyone who ever did a descriptive grammar of a
language will confirm this). In addition, in many cases the diachronic
sequence of events is still well known in the linguistics community
(e.g. the fact that French vous was originally only a plural pronoun).

The only way one might justify such an asymmetric description
*theoretically* is by showing that for speakers, too, certain uses are
primary. One straightforward way of determining this is by looking at
frequencies: More frequent uses are presumably more salient (perhaps
also more entrenched) for speakers and in this sense primary.

Another possibility is that certain extensions of uses are both
*unidirectional* and *natural*, e.g. the use of an abstract noun
("highness" etc.) as a term of address is presumably unidirectional (one
wouldn't use a pronoun to denote "highnes"), and speakers in certain
cultures might recognize that this is a natural extension. My impression
is that many linguists intuitively apply this latter criterion, but of
course David asked for hard-and-fast criteria, not fuzzy intuitions.
There is a growing literature on unidirectionality in the development of
grammatical semantics, but so far there is no complete theory of this
and of synchronic semantic basic-derived relationship, as far as I can

Martin Haspelmath

Dr. Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Inselstr. 22
D-04103 Leipzig (Tel. (MPI) +49-341-9952 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616)

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