A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Very Special Pronoun Time

In my pursuit of gender-neutrality, if there's one thing I'm doing more and more lately it's this: Thinking about pronouns. Pronouns are some of the most interesting and revealing concepts from each language. For example, if a language has a pronoun system vastly different from your own (for example, English speakers' view of Japanese), it's one of the first warning signs that makes your linguistic instinct go "WARNING! WARNING! DANGEROUS! PROCEED WITH CAUTION!" Perhaps the pronouns are only slightly different, but still odd to you (for another example, the all encompassing Hungarian "ő"). But recently, I'm examining the pronouns in my own native language (English) more and more.

I've talked about my support of the singular "they" for a while, so this isn't going to be about that. Instead, I've been thinking about a rather fascinating word: "One".

In first grade, we're not taught that this is a pronoun. We learn the chart as follows:

1st:   I   We
2nd: You  You
3rd:  He  They

But then, pretty soon, we hear people saying "One should always..." or "One must respect one's parents." Our minds work to accept that this is a pronoun, albeit a rare one that we weren't taught.

When I started looking at this word with the perspective I have now, I noticed a couple things:

1.People will only use it in the most impersonal of situations, when even giving the option of gender (i.e. he/she) would be too identifying of the subject.
2.You can't use it like you would any other pronoun.

To show what I mean:

"Jordan must do her duties."
"Jordan must do his duties."
"Jordan must do its duties."
"Jordan must do their duties."
"Jordan must do one's duties."

The last one doesn't sound right to us. To risk violating a very serious analytical rule, I'm going to say it doesn't work. Even though Jordan is our third-person singular subject, when "one" is introduced, the grammar rules embedded in our minds lead us to think that this "one" must be a whole new subject, separate from Jordan. Now:

"One must do one's duties."

That works, just as "He would do his duties" would. Simply looking at this sentence, one would be tempted to think (see what I did there?) that "one" behaves just like any other pronoun. But, as our dear Jordan demonstrates above, it doesn't - the use of "one" requires that it be the only pronoun used in a phrase. You cannot apply "one" to another third-person subject.

This makes me think: Should it be considered a pronoun? It doesn't act like one. In terms of third-person, a pronoun should be completely applicable to another noun. Thus, I say that "one" is not a pronoun. But at the same time, it's also not a noun. Don't believe me?

"A dog cut her paw."
"The car cut its bumper."
"One stubbed her toe."

Because of the impersonality of "one", applying a separate pronoun to it does not work at all. It's an unwritten rule that all nouns should be able to have pronouns applied to them. So, what the hell is "one"?

To be honest, I really have no idea. So I'm just going to call it a "very special word" from now on. Yup.

One last note: How and when "one" is used in place of "you", "a person/student/noun etc.", or "him or her" really fascinates me. At my first glance, there were no rules as to how it was used. But, I think I've developed a little hypothesis:

Notice how I said "one would be tempted to think"? I was explaining how someone would be affected by the sentence. And how about sentences like "one must respect one's parents" or "one should do one's duties"? These sentences don't give a shit about whoever or whatever is behind the pronoun - what they care about is what:

1.Something else does to the pronoun, or
2.The pronoun does to something else.

Now, in sentences like "A person needs to clean his/her/their hair", the sentences care about the pronoun. It's what's doing the effect as while as being effected. Most likely this is just me having a really stupid theory, but perhaps "one" is used when the pronoun need not be the complete focus of the sentence.

No comments:

Post a Comment