pronouns and nouns

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Oct 20 17:26:14 UTC 1998

Martin's generalization (noun>pronoun vs. ?? pronoun>noun) and Mickey's
counterexamples bring to the fore another problematical issue which I
was thinking of raising later, namely the viability of the noun/pronoun

In Southeast Asian languages it is notoriously difficult to justify a
noun/pronoun distinction, but even in English, where such a distinction
is clearly well-motivated, Mickey's examples are all probably most
appropriately attributed to the no-man's-land between the two: none of
them strike me as being a 100% clearcut example of pronoun>noun.

Consider first the hide-and-seek example, eg.

(1) John's it.

Admittedly, this is parallel to the article-less construction

(2) John's goalkeeper

but this usage of "it" seems to be much more syntactically restricted:

(3) John's the ??it / goalkeeper today
(4) John's a really good ??it / goalkeeper
(5) They're playing with two ??its / goalkeepers

It seems to me that "BE it" is some kind of an idiom in English.
Turning now to Mickey's other examples:

(6) That dog is an it
(7) Leslie is a she

Here the article in front of the pronoun makes it look more noun-like.
But there are still too many restructions on these pronouns to justify
their characterization as anything like real nouns in English:

(8) I want to buy the ?it / neutered one, not the ?she / female one.
(9) That whining ?it / neutered one isn't anywhere near as cute as this
fluffy ?she / female one.

Finally, the Adam's family "It" is different again, namely a proper noun
(which, under many definitions of nouns, aren't really nouns at all but
rather NPs.)

Of course, all of Mickey's examples are interesting cases where a
restricted or somewhat marginal usage of English pronoun shares some
limited properties with English nouns.  But these examples are *much*
more limited in scope than the numerous attested instances of nouns
undergoing grammaticalization as pronouns.  Which is why I still find
the unidirectionality claims largely convincing.

(Even if they're not much help for me, sorting out the forms generally
referred to as pronouns in Malay / Indnoesian.)


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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