[Lingtyp] Definition of “personal pronoun"

William Croft wcroft at unm.edu
Sun Jul 11 17:45:40 UTC 2021

The discussion over defining "pronoun" reminded me of the discussion over "passive" on this list in March and many other discussions about grammatical terms we've had on this list. At first, I thought it would be a replay of the category of discussions of the form "Phenomenon X in language Y is or isn't an instance of category/construction Z", which evolved into discussions about cross-linguistic categories as described by Dryer (1997) (crudely, English pronoun = Korean pronoun = pronoun in a cross-linguistic sense) vs. comparative concepts in the sense of Haspelmath (2010) (crudely, English Pronoun ≠ Korean Pronoun ≠ pronoun as a comparative concept).

But I think that isn't entirely the case here, although some of the discussion has implied the cross-linguistic category/comparative concept debate. Instead, I think the main problematic assumption is that there is a definition of "pronoun" that we could all agree on, independent of our own theories about the best analysis of pronouns; and we could then be confident that we're talking about the same thing when we debate our theories of pronouns.

I don't think that's the case, for several reasons. Consider some of the phenomena that have been raised in this discussion:

--whether there is a unified definition of 1st/2nd and 3rd person pronouns
--the use of a demonstrative pronoun as a third person pronoun
--first mention ("exophoric") use of third person pronouns
--whether 'here'/'there' and their translation equivalents are pronouns
--whether indefinites like 'someone' and 'who' are pronouns like personal pronouns
--the use of a demonstrative pronoun as a modifier, as in 'that car'
--use of nouns as pronouns in languages like Korean

All of these issues depend on one's theoretical stance regarding deixis and anaphora, accessibility, definiteness, meaning and use, reference and modification, nouns and adverbs, and what, if anything, these concepts have to do with pronouns. The supposed "descriptions" of the phenomena presented above are also problematic because they frame the phenomena in ways that some would disagree with (including myself).

In addition, any definition of a grammatical concept like "pronoun" is going to involve making boundaries separating what are considered "pronouns" from what are not "pronouns". That collides with the empirical fact that linguistic forms evolve into "pronouns", and asserting that there is a single point in the diachronic process where it "becomes a pronoun" is pretty arbitrary.

All grammatical concepts are theory-laden, and are interconnected with other theory-laden concepts, including semantic, pragmatic, and discourse concepts. Since we have different theories of all of these things, we won't agree with a definition of "pronoun" that assumes a theory that we don't accept. Typologists like myself believe that we can come up with definitions that are "useful" for constructing typological universals. But even delimiting the phenomenon makes assumptions. The best we can hope for is to come up with a "good" comparative concept for something like "pronoun" AFTER doing the empirical cross-linguistic work and seeing what emerges. And since the typological data is complex, alternative typological generalizations will be plausible, and so "useful" definitions of things like "pronouns" will most likely vary.

Some have observed that we somehow succeed in communicating with each other even though we use terms that are ill-defined, even incoherent, or just sanctioned by tradition. That is true because we are members of the linguistics speech community, or more narrowly the typology speech community. Our shared experience in studying languages, reading the literature and talking to our fellow typologists means we have enough common ground to figure out what each other means when we use the term "pronoun" most of the time. This is the way language works.

This email discussion is useful, not because "the right definition of pronoun" will result from it, but because it uncovers what issues there are in analyzing pronouns.

Best wishes,

"No word means the same thing twice" - Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
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