'impersonal' second person

Paolo Ramat paoram at UNIPV.IT
Fri Dec 23 14:55:36 UTC 2011

I don’t remember whether you got answers concerning Italian, my native language. Impersonal and generic uses of the 2nd pers. are quite normal: Here is the translation of your first text:
Ho visto le facce di quei bambini. Ho pensato: se solo potessi dire qualcosa. Come ora, mentre stavo passeggiando a Hebron  e ho visto i bambini, ho detto:’Non puoi (2SG) nemmeno dirgli niente. Ti (PRO 2SG) odiano, non vogliono vederTI (Clit.2SG), pensano che TU (PRO 2SG) sei il nemico, e resti (PRES.INDIC.2SG). Non hai (PRES.INDIC.2SG) niente da dirgli’


Prof.Paolo Ramat
Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori (IUSS )
Direttore del Centro "Lingue d'Europa: tipologia, storia e sociolinguistica" (LETiSS)
Viale Lungo Ticino Sforza 56
27100 Pavia
tel. ++390382375811
fax ++390382375899

From: Eitan Grossman 
Sent: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 12:10 PM
Subject: Re: 'impersonal' second person

Dear all,

Some time ago, I asked about 'impersonal' or 'generic' uses of the second person. Many people were kind enough to respond, so thanks! I hope to send a proper summary soon.

One thing that doesn't seem to be prominent in the literature, but which turns up abundantly in a corpus study of Modern Hebrew, is the use of the second person for non-generic intrapersonal dialogue (I'll cite the English translation rather than the Hebrew - if someone is interested I can give the Hebrew original). 

‘I saw the faces of those kids. I thought to myself: If I could just say something. Like now, when I walked around in Hebron and saw the kids I said, you can’t even say anything to them. They hate you, they don’t want to see you, they think you’re the enemy, and you are wordless. You have nothing to tell them.’

Furthermore, it can be used to index the speaker in the course of narrating events in which the speaker has taken part:

The kids would get us these pistols. You’d give the kid 15 shekels and he’d be happy and get you such a gun. Bags of 100 pellets would cost us 3 shekels. We had plenty of these pistols in the company, lots. And it was pretty idiotic of the kids to buy them for us, because many of the soldiers would then use them on the kids. You’d sit on guard duty and – pop – shoot a kid, pop – shoot a kid 

Finally, it can be used to index a non-speaker, non-addressee, evidently to express empathy:
You saw situations where people went to the bathroom in their pants? 


>From being beaten, for the most part. Being beaten to death, and threatened, and screamed at, you are just terrified. Especially if it’s in front of your kids, they yell and threaten and scare them, so you also fear for the kids 

Obviously, there is a lot more to say about this. Minimally, it seems that these functions have to be taken into account in, e.g., semantic maps, such as the ones that Johan van der Auwera and Volker Gast have been working on. The first two of these functions were already noted (for English) by Patricia O'Connor in: 

O’Connor, Patricia E., 1994. ‘You could feel it through the skin’: Agency and positioning in prisoners’ stabbing stories, Text 14 (1): 45-75.

I am just finishing up an article on this, which will be published in a really obscure collection of non-linguistic papers. The gist of the paper is to discuss how the second person is used as a linguistic strategy to navigate issues of speaker agency, responsibility, and accountability (together with, e.g., passives, impersonals, and nominalizations). In a sense, most of this was already noted by Bolinger, who said ‘The deeper we go into impersonal you, the more personal it seems.’ 

Best wishes, and apologies for the long delay,

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