Loading...

Variable Pronoun Usage in Child Speech

Bachelor Thesis 2012 60 Pages

American Studies - Linguistics

Excerpt

Table of Contents

Introduction

1. English Pronouns
1.1 The Pronominal System of Modern Standard English
1.2 Pronouns in Reference to Animals in Modern Standard English

2. Possible Influences on the Choice of Pronouns
2.1 Generic Reference vs. Specific Reference
2.2 Animal-like Behavior vs. Personification
2.3 Passive Object vs. Active Agent
2.4 Gender-neutral Behavior vs. Maternal Behavior
2.5 The Hierarchy of Individuation

3. Methodology
3.1 Material
3.1.1 Picture Story: Generic Reference vs. Specific Reference
3.1.2 Picture Story: Animal-like Behavior vs. Personification
3.1.3 Picture Story: Passive Object vs. Active Agent
3.1.4 Picture Story: Gender-neutral Behavior vs. Maternal Behavior
3.2 Procedure

4. Results

5. Discussion
5.1 Pronoun Switches Induced by the Set Triggers
5.2 The Choice of Gender-specific Pronouns over Neuter it
5.3 The Choice of Masculine he over Feminine she and Neuter it

6. Conclusion

List of References

Appendix

Picture Stories

Introduction

Even though the pronominal system of Modern Standard English has a semantic basis, it is often assumed that pronouns are simply chosen to agree in person, number, and gender with their antecedents. This paper sets out to demonstrate that this is clearly not the case. With child speech as the object of study, it shall be investigated which factors actually do influence the choice between masculine, feminine and neuter pronouns. For this purpose, an experiment based on four picture stories was designed. The picture stories each feature one animal of unknown sex and include a change in this animal’s characteristics or behavior. Animals of unknown sex were chosen as antecedents since they allow reference with all three pronouns. The changes in the animals’ qualities and behavior are the following: ‘generic reference vs. specific reference’, ‘animal-like behavior vs. personification’, ‘passive object vs. active agent’ and ‘gender-neutral behavior vs. maternal behavior’. If these triggers result in a pronoun switch within one and the same string of reference, it can be inferred that the tested factors have an influence on the choice of pronouns.

In order to introduce into the field of pronouns, the pronominal system of Modern Standard English is going to be described in Chapter 1.1. Chapter 1.2 deals with pronouns in reference to animals in Modern Standard English. Chapter 2 introduces the above-mentioned influences on pronoun-choice that are going to be tested in the present study. Chapter 3 describes the experiment’s methodology and Chapter 4 presents its results. Finally, in Chapter 5, the results are going to be discussed.

1. English Pronouns

1.1 The Pronominal System of Modern Standard English

The term pronoun usually refers to a number of different kinds of words, such as personal pronouns, demonstratives, interrogatives, indefinites etc. (cf. Bhat, 2004, p.1) However, the present study is primarily concerned with the third person singular pronouns he/she/it and their different derivations such as the objective forms him/her/it, the reflexive forms himself/herself/itself and the two possessive forms his/her/its and his/hers/its. The criteria according to which pronouns are distributed in Modern Standard English are humanness (animacy) of the referent and the sex of the referent. There are no gender distinctions in the plural of the third person, in the first person or in the second person.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1.11: Pronominal Gender in Standard English (Siemund, 2008: p.148)

The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language distinguishes nine classes of gender, which can be seen in Figure 1.2:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1.2: Gender classes (Quirk et a., 1985, p.314)

The fact that there are nouns of variable gender leads to variations in the system. Dual gender nouns that do not specify the sex of the referent give rise to some inconsistencies concerning the choice between the masculine and the feminine pronouns. Since humanness of the referent is not questioned with nouns like parent, cousin, servant etc., the neuter pronoun it is not taken into consideration here. This is not the case with common gender nouns. Nouns like child, baby or infant allow reference with either masculine, feminine or neuter pronouns.

In Modern Standard English, there is also some variation concerning the distribution of animate and inanimate pronouns in the description of inanimate objects. Animate pronouns sometimes tend to be used for inanimate objects. Examples of this are countries, ships and cars, which are often referred to with the feminine pronoun. An important factor governing the distribution of animate and inanimate pronouns in reference to all nouns is that of individuation. An explanatory model for this, namely the Hierarchy of Individuation will be explained in Chapter 2.5. (cf. Siemund, 2008: p. 147 ff)

Acquiring the pronominal system is a very complex process including the understanding of semantic rules like the natural gender rule2 or the animacy rule3. Table 1.1 offers the general order of pronoun acquisition. Usually subjective pronouns, such as he, she, and they, are acquired before objective pronouns, such as him, her, and them. These are followed by possessive pronouns, such as his, her, and their, and finally, around the age of five, by reflexive pronouns, such as himself, herself, and themselves. (cf. Owens, 1996)

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 1.1: The development of pronouns (Owens, 1996, p.297)

What can be inferred from Table 1.1 is that the participants of the present study have already acquired the group of possessive pronouns and are currently at the stage of acquiring the reflexive forms.

1.2 Pronouns in Reference to Animals in Modern Standard English

In general, animals can be referred to by all three pronouns. However, there are some distributional rules. Animal nouns can be divided into three gender classes: Higher male animals, which are referred to with the masculine pronoun he, higher female animals, which are referred to with the feminine pronoun she and lower animals which are referred to with the neuter pronoun it.4 If the sex of the animal under consideration is unknown, it is usually referred to with the inanimate pronoun, but it is also possible to refer to with the masculine pronouns with a sex-neutral meaning. However, the true neutrality of this reference is not undisputed and will be discussed later on. Baby animals are usually treated like human infants and thus referred to with inanimate pronouns unless the reference is of specific and personal nature. (cf. Siemund, 2008: p. 158 ff)

2. Possible Influences on the Choice of Pronouns

As has been described above, there is much room for variation in pronoun usage in reference to animals. In the following, different factors that might influence the choice between the different possibilities are going to be presented. Donald Mackay and Toshi Konishi conducted two studies on pronoun usage in reference to non-human antecedents in children’s fiction. They set up a number of different factors that influence the choice of pronouns (cf. Mackay, Konishi, 1980). Three of these, namely ‘generic reference vs. specific reference’, ‘animal-like behavior vs. personification’ and ‘passive object vs. active agent’ are going to be tested in the present study in order to find out whether their influence can be extended beyond children’s fiction onto actual child speech. One factor that was not part of Mackay and Konishi’s study was added, namely that of ‘gender- neutral behavior vs. maternal behavior’.

2.1 Generic Reference vs. Specific Reference

As MacKay and Konishi found out, the degree of specificity of reference determines the choice of pronouns that are used. The antecedents the investigators recorded, “varied in specificity from generic instances (e.g. 'A bat is born naked and blind and pale'), to specific unnamed instances (e.g. 'About noon they saw a pretty snow-white bird sitting on a bough'), to specific named instances (e.g. 'Blob the Whale'), to sex-definite names ('Peter Rabbit'), to names and sex-specific titles ('Mrs. Furrynose).” (Mackay & Konishi, 1979, p.152 f) The results of their analysis can be seen in Table 2.1.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 2.1: The use of he and she vs. it for named vs. unnamed antecedents, and sex specific vs. sex indefinite antecedents (MacKay and Konishi, 1979: p. 153)

As shown in Table 2.1, Mackay and Konishi found a significant difference between the reference to generic (sex-indefinite) antecedents (78% animate pronouns) and the reference to named (specific) antecedents (97% animate pronouns). It shall now be investigated whether this difference can also be found in child speech.

2.2 Animal-like Behavior vs. Personification

Another factor influencing the choice between animate and inanimate pronouns, that Mackay and Konishi investigated, is personification, here defined as endowing animals with human form, behavior or character traits.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 2.2: The use of he and she vs. it for personified vs. non-personified antecedents (Mackay and Konishi, 1979, p.152)

As can be seen in Table 2.2, the use of the animate pronouns she and he was more frequent with personified antecedents, while the use of neuter it was more common for non-personified antecedents.

2.3 Passive Object vs. Active Agent

When Mackay and Konishi investigated instances of pronoun switches, where animate as well as inanimate pronouns were used for one and the same referent, they found that “an entity is referred to as he when part of the action but as it when passively acted upon” (MacKay and Konishi, 1979: p.155).

2.4 Gender-neutral Behavior vs. Maternal Behavior

In her work Sex Roles as Revealed Through Referential Gender in American English, Madeleine Mathiot investigated the underlying concepts5 of pronouns and found that the distinction between she and he, respectively female and non-female, is “covertly specified as Able-to-Give-Birth vs. Unable-to-Give-Birth”. (Mathiot, 1979, p. 9)6 This pattern also appears when examining literature for children. In various pieces of children’s fiction about animals, it is notable that the majority of the characters are referred to with masculine pronouns. The characters that are referred to with feminine pronouns often share the following qualities: They either are mothers, behave maternally or are candidates for future matrimony. It shall now be investigated whether adding maternal qualities to a gender-neutral animal results in a pronoun switch to the feminine pronoun she.

2.5 The Hierarchy of Individuation

The Hierarchy of Individuation depicts the way in which pronouns are distributed and the processes that lead to a change in reference.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 2.1: The Hierarchy of Individuation (Siemund, 2008: p. 4)

Proper names are on the very left of the scale since they refer to highly individuated entities. By contrast, mass nouns are on the very right of the hierarchy since they are mostly not individuated at all. Descriptions of animals as well as inanimate tangible objects are located mid-way on the scale. Abstract nouns are located between inanimate nouns and mass nouns because they can both be countable and uncountable.

The entities referred to by the nouns on the left side of the hierarchy are picked out with the animate pronouns he and she, while the nouns on the right side are referred to by the inanimate pronouns it. As Siemund argued in his book Pronominal Gender in English, the “animate pronouns like he and she encroach upon the Hierarchy of Individuation from the left extending their domain of usage to the right while neuter it proceeds in the opposite direction i.e. from right to left.” (Siemund, 2008: p.4) That is, animate pronouns come to be used in reference to inanimate objects and vice versa. This mechanism is called upgrading; Referring to an inanimate entity with animate pronouns means assimilating it to a human being and thus upgrading it (cf. Siemund: p. 139-144).

The factor of ‘Generic reference vs. specific reference’ now triggers a similar mechanism. When an animal is referred to generically, it would be ordered right in the middle of the hierarchy and thus referred to with the inanimate pronoun it. In contrast, when the animal is given a name and the reference is specific consequently, it would thus be ordered on the very left of the scale, in the branch of proper names, and referred to with the animate pronouns she or he.

A very similar process occurs when an animal is personified. The animal which would usually be set in an intermediate position on the Hierarchy of Individuation is shifted to the branch of humans on the left side of the scale. It is assigned human qualities, upgraded and referred to with the animate pronouns she or he.

The case of the third factor, ‘passive object vs. active agent’, is not that clear. However, one could argue that an animal that is sleeping - and thus entirely passive- could be positioned in the branch of inanimate tangible objects rather than the branch of animals, judging only the current qualities and nature of the animal. In contrast, when the animal is an active agent, carrying out the action in focus, it is clearly located in the branch of animals, if not partly personified and shifted higher to the branch of humans.

The only factor that cannot actually be compared to the Hierarchy of Individuation is that of ‘gender-neutral behaviour vs. maternal behaviour’. Still, it is to assume that animal-mothers and mothers in general evoke similar connotations in children. If that is the case, assigning maternal qualities to an animal would mean personifying it.

3. Methodology

In order to test the four factors that might trigger pronoun switches, four picture stories, displaying four different animals were designed. Due to the limited scope of this paper it was not possible to test each factor in combination with each animal. A pre-test was carried out at an international pre- and elementary school in Germany. The test group consisted of three children at the age of four to five years and three children at the age of five to six years that were all native speakers of British English.

After having adapted the material, the actual experiment was carried out at a private elementary school in Mayfield, East-Sussex. The clientele of the school is mostly upper middle-class and the children speak Modern Standard English. The test group consisted of seventeen boys and twenty-two girls at the age of four years and three months, up to seven years and two months. The experimental form was favoured over a corpus analysis even though a corpus analysis might have provided more authentic results. The reason for this decision was that no corpus delivers enough data of children actually talking about the chosen animals to be comparable and representative. Moreover, authentic data from i.e. children’s conversation with their parents would entail a number of confounding variables and the triggers could not have been integrated at all.

3.1 Material

The picture stories showed a rabbit, cat, dog and kangaroo. The cat and the dog were chosen since cats are often, especially when contrasted with dogs, assigned feminine sex-role stereotypes. Cats are frequently described as quiet, clean, pretty and elegant, while dogs are said to be wild, loud and brave. (cf. Weitzman, 1972) All of these qualities are often also assigned to girls and boys, respectively. The rabbit was added to the experiment since it appears relatively gender-neutral. The kangaroo was chosen to test the factor ‘gender-neutral behavior vs. maternal behavior’ because it can be seen as a kind of maternal stereotype. It carries its baby in its pouch and thus takes it wherever it goes, which gives a very caring and responsible-minded impression.7

3.1.1 Picture Story: Generic Reference vs. Specific Reference

Picture 1: A rabbit is sitting on a meadow with a blade of grass in its mouth.

Picture 2: The rabbit is sniffing and looking for more food.

Picture 3: A girl has come into the picture. She is calling out the name “Billy”.

Picture 4: Billy, the rabbit, is reacting to the girl calling it. It is pricking up its ears and turning around.

Picture 5: Billy is scampering towards the girl who is now holding a carrot in her hand.

Picture 6: The girl is giving the carrot to Billy.

This story was designed to test the influence of a change from generic, to specific reference. Picture 3 establishes the concept of the rabbit as a pet and thus a specific animal with the name Billy. The reference changes from being generic to being specific. The name Billy was chosen, since it can be a girl’s name as well as a boy’s name.

3.1.2 Picture Story: Animal-like Behavior vs. Personification

Picture 1: A cat, wearing a coat and a hat, is standing upright in front of somebody’s door. It is ringing the doorbell.

Picture 2: A boy has opened the door and is making a welcoming hand gesture. The cat is reacting by turning toward the open door.

Picture 3: The boy and the cat are inside. In the background one can see a wardrobe, a bowl and a basket. The boy is taking the cat’s coat and hat. The cat is not wearing any clothes anymore.

Picture 4: The cat is now on its four feet and is eating cat food out of the bowl.

Picture 5: The cat is yawning and walking towards the basket.

Picture 6: The cat is sleeping in the basket.

Since the cat is personified in the first three pictures, it is to be expected that the children will use animate pronouns in reference to the cat in the beginning and switch to neuter it at pictures 3 or 4.

3.1.3 Picture Story: Passive Object vs. Active Agent

Picture 1: A dog is sleeping on a couch.

Picture 2: A boy has come into the picture and is petting the dog.

Picture 3: The dog is perking up its ear and opening one eye.

Picture 4: The dog is wide awake and jumping up on the boy. They are playing together.

Picture 5: The dog is wagging its tail and licking the boy’s face.

Here the trigger is set at picture 3 where the dog changes from being asleep and passive to being awake and active.

3.1.4 Picture Story: Gender-neutral Behavior vs. Maternal Behavior

Picture 1: A kangaroo is jumping around.

Picture 2: It is jumping over a fence.

Picture 3: It is standing beneath a tree, eating leaves.

Picture 4: A baby-kangaroo is sticking its head out of the mother’s pouch.

Picture 5: The adult kangaroo is feeding its baby a leaf.

Picture 6: The baby kangaroo is jumping out of the pouch. Picture 7: The adult kangaroo is jumping after its baby.

In this story the trigger is set at picture 4 where the maternal qualities of the kangaroo are established.

3.2 Procedure

The children were interviewed one at a time in a quiet area of their school. At the beginning of the interview the researcher asked the children for their names and ages. Then she told the children, “I am now going to show you five different picture stories. Please tell me what you see in them.” If the child did not respond to this request or only answered in one-word-sentences, the researcher used prompts to elicit pronoun such as “What do you see here?” or “What do you think, the cat (respectively dog/rabbit/kangaroo) is doing here?” In these questions the researcher avoided pronoun usage. The researcher showed each child picture after picture instead of presenting all of the pictures on one sheet, in order to make sure that the child focused on the picture in question. After listening to all of the child’s descriptions, she went on to ask the child to identify the sex of the animal by pointing at each animal and asking, “Do you think this is a girl or a boy?”. The children’s answers were recorded and evaluated later on.

[...]


1 For reasons of clarity, figures, tables and examples are going to be numbered separately for each chapter.

2 “When a noun has the feature [+male] or [+female] because its referent possesses natural sex, in the majority of the cases, the noun is given masculine or feminine gender respectively.” (Mills, 1986, p. 16)

3 “Under normal stylistic conditions, inanimate referents are referred to with it, contrasting with he and she for human or personal animates.” (Mills, 1986, p.17)

4 See Figure 1.2.

5 Underlying concepts: “the aspect of reality referred to through the grammatical category under investigation”. (Mathiot, 1979, p. 2)

6 Even though Mathiot’s object of study was American English there is no reason to assume that the same does not hold true for British English.

7 In the descriptions of the picture stories neuter it was chosen to refer to the animals even though it might sound unnatural in some cases. This effect already points to the influence of the tested factors.

Details

Pages
60
Year
2012
ISBN (eBook)
9783656346142
ISBN (Book)
9783656346326
File size
10.7 MB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v207163
Institution / College
University of Hamburg
Grade
1,3
Tags
pronouns Pronomen Child Speech generic masculine

Author

Share

Previous

Title: Variable Pronoun Usage in Child Speech