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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 11:35 am 
Lebom
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Will singular "they" be as acceptable as singular "you" currently is in formal English in the future? I wish it would. In a commercial I heard "Your doctor wouldn't do your job, so why should you do hers.". They apparently had to pick a gender for the doctor since singular "they" was considered unacceptable. And apparently they couldn't "his" because that would apparently be sexist by saying that women shouldn't be doctors. And saying "his or hers" would be cumbersome. So that picked the female gender for the doctor. They should just start accepting singular "they" much like singular "you" is accepted these days.


Last edited by Fooge on Thu Jan 25, 2018 7:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 12:17 pm 
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Fooge wrote:
Will singular "they" be as acceptable as singular "you" currently is in formal English in the future?

Is singular "you" acceptable in formal English? In my day, one was instructed to use "one".


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 1:16 pm 
Lebom
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linguoboy wrote:
Fooge wrote:
Will singular "they" be as acceptable as singular "you" currently is in formal English in the future?

Is singular "you" acceptable in formal English? In my day, one was instructed to use "one".


Yes, using "you" as a singular pronoun is acceptable. It used to be only a plural pronoun. "thou" and "thee" were the singular pronouns. Nowadays "you" is used for both singular and plural in formal English and the old "thou" and "thee" are archaic for the vast majority of speakers. Generic "you" is something different and not what I'm referring to.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 1:22 pm 
Sanno
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Fooge wrote:
linguoboy wrote:
Fooge wrote:
Will singular "they" be as acceptable as singular "you" currently is in formal English in the future?

Is singular "you" acceptable in formal English? In my day, one was instructed to use "one".

Yes, using "you" as a singular pronoun is acceptable. It used to be only a plural pronoun. "thou" and "thee" were the singular pronouns. Nowadays "you" is used for both singular and plural in formal English and the old "thou" and "thee" are archaic for the vast majority of speakers. Generic "you" is something different and not what I'm referring to.

My mistake.

In general, the line between "formal" and "informal" English is less strict than it used to be. I'm not even sure what authorities you'd use to establish the characteristics of the former.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 4:29 pm 
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I'd say that using "one" for the 2nd person is disparaged in formal English - though not as deprecated as using it for the 1st person (which is what working class people think posh people, but posh people do not do, unless they're Prince Charles for some reason).



However, it's probably true that there isn't really a specific "formal English" anymore. Media organisations are now encouraged to be more vernacular in style, so while they tend toward a more formal standard they're no longer really a good test of an objective 'formal English'. Similarly, non-fiction writers attempt to be 'popular', so you don't get (or don't hear about) the Russells and Churchills of formal English prose anymore. There is still highly formal English in, say, legal documents, and in business reports, but those are weird English dialects that traditional 'formal English' writers would have deplored. I guess the last bastion of good formal English is probably academic papers in the humanities?

However, "formal English" could still be given a meaning as whatever is not INformal English...

[But I think that in general in formal English singular 'they' IS acceptable, although it has to compete with the 'academic she' in some contexts. In this case, I wonder how much of the commercial's she-ness was really due to formality (TV ads not being considered generally sticklers for good formal English) and how much is due to the sense that 'she' is a more 'humanising' pronoun for building empathy?]

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 7:13 pm 
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I always thought that the surge in popularity of using "she" was down to a desire not to be seen as sexist.


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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 7:51 pm 
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KathTheDragon wrote:
I always thought that the surge in popularity of using "she" was down to a desire not to be seen as sexist.


'She' vs 'he', yes. Which is why academic papers now all have 'she'.

But that doesn't explain 'she' vs 'they', since 'they' is not inherently sexist*.



*yes, I know some people think 'they' is inherently sexist. But they're a minority.

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 7:59 pm 
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Fooge wrote:
Will singular "they" be as acceptable as singular "you" currently is in formal English in the future? I wish it would. In a commercial I heard "Your doctor wouldn't do your job, so why should you do hers."
I love that commercial. They do have a versions of the commercial with a male doctor as well, and others with women too. I think singular "they" would work well in that particular context, but because its a TV commercial and you can see that the doctor is a woman, its preferable to use the more precise pronoun "her".

Edit: of courspeorudcte the commercial the commercial is always about doctors s8nthe ce 9t
s a medical product

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 25, 2018 8:17 pm 
Sumerul
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Salmoneus wrote:
But that doesn't explain 'she' vs 'they', since 'they' is not inherently sexist*.

That's easy, the widespread misconception that singular "they" doesn't exist.


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 26, 2018 7:22 am 
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KathTheDragon wrote:
Salmoneus wrote:
But that doesn't explain 'she' vs 'they', since 'they' is not inherently sexist*.

That's easy, the widespread misconception that singular "they" doesn't exist.


...yes, that's the whole point of this thread that you're commenting on.

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 26, 2018 4:20 pm 
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There's no widespread misconception -- singular "they" doesn't exist, except among the people who insist that it does. There is a generic "they", and there is a great deal of evidence compiled by stupid and/or lying singular "they" advocates that the generic "they" has been around since Chaucer. (Generic "they" is a simple and obvious development, probably originating from confusion around semantically plural-and-generic but grammatically singular words like "everyone".) What you won't find outside fringe dialects spoken by the ostentatiously woke is "they" being used to refer to one specific person.

And if you talk to the aspiring ostentatiously woke -- people who are aligned with that coalition but haven't done time in insular communities of the ostentatiously woke -- you'll find, as I have, that they still have substantial difficulties with specific singular "they", i.e. that it isn't immediately grammatical even for them and still has to be learned as a rule of a weird prestige dialect.

It seems possible that, like Johannes Aavik's attempt to loan "no" from Japanese into Estonian, the adoption will ultimately fail because it violates some sort of human universal. That's an interesting question: are there any attested cultures with a concept of total genderlessness? And in cultures that are claimed to have some sort of third gender but speak languages with gender distinctions in pronouns, what pronouns does the third gender take? Have new forms been innovated, or are they grammatically folded into the existing pronoun structure?

One possibility that's generally been discounted so far is that urbanization, the credential bubble, etc. -- the trends that have generally been taken as a sign that wokeness is a safe investment and will continue to increase in value in the future -- are instead indicative of a wokeness bubble which is in the early stages of popping by eternal September. If ostentatious wokeness is the product of a certain mindset (such as the secularized mindset of the religious fanatics who settled New England and founded institutions like Harvard), the dilution of the niche associated with the people who are disproportionately likely to have that mindset is likely to cause an eventual preference cascade. If you aren't the sort of person who would like ostentatious wokeness, maybe you aren't likely to be flexible enough to adopt it when you're in its territory, and maybe the only thing holding it in place is pressure from the natives.

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 26, 2018 5:33 pm 
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Then how do you explain these:
Wikipedia wrote:
"A person can't help their birth."—Rosalind in W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848); quoted from the OED by Curzan in Gender Shifts in the History of English.
"Eche of theym sholde ... make theymselfe redy."— Caxton, Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489)

Historically, there were two gender-neutral pronouns native to English dialects, ou and (h)a. According to Dennis Baron's Grammar and Gender:[13]

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular "ou": "'Ou will' expresses either he will, she will, or it will." Marshall traces "ou" to Middle English epicene "a", used by the 14th century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright's English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of "a" for he, she, it, they, and even I. This "a" is a reduced form of the Anglo-Saxon he = "he" and heo = "she".

Baron goes on to describe how relics of these sex-neutral terms survive in some British dialects of Modern English (for example hoo for "she", in Yorkshire), and sometimes a pronoun of one gender might be applied to a person or animal of the opposite gender.
I agree with the statement "singular 'they' doesn't exist, except among the people who insist that it does". But that is true of any feature. That's like saying "faggot" as "a bundle of sticks tied together" doesn't exist, except among the people who insist that it does (the British).

Also, wokeness did not originate with the mindset of Harvard. It originated from Black English Vernacular, coming from the phrase "wake up". This is one of reasons people say "stay woke" - it's an intensified habitual of "woke". The modern adoption of singular "they" actually has little to do with the "woke"; it never really died out from earlier usage and was heavily promoted by the white-dominated feminist movement during the 60s and 70s. In fact, there is whole history of repeated complaints against singular they, from An English Grammar for the Use of High School, Academy and College Class in 1895 to The arte of Rhetorique in 1560, with the complaints being routed in too much prescriptivism and/or sexism.

I think your disagreements with the political values of other people who mean no harm (as opposed to those who do mean harm, like terrorists and criminals) is causing you to reject claims from ideology alone rather than facts. Anyway, even if you decide to just ignore whatever evidence doesn't fit your ideology, could you at least accept that by the descriptivist view singular they is a normalised feature of English in a broad swath of dialects/idiolects and therefore a "real word".

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 26, 2018 6:16 pm 
Avisaru
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Salmoneus wrote:
*yes, I know some people think 'they' is inherently sexist. But they're a minority.

I'd be interested in an explanation of this--I haven't heard that one before.

Nortaneous wrote:
There's no widespread misconception -- singular "they" doesn't exist, except among the people who insist that it does. There is a generic "they", and there is a great deal of evidence compiled by stupid and/or lying singular "they" advocates that the generic "they" has been around since Chaucer. (Generic "they" is a simple and obvious development, probably originating from confusion around semantically plural-and-generic but grammatically singular words like "everyone".) What you won't find outside fringe dialects spoken by the ostentatiously woke is "they" being used to refer to one specific person.

You've either misunderstood, or you're ignoring the way many people use the term "singular they". Just like many people use "double negative" when they actually mean what is better called "negative concord", many people use the term "singular they" when they actually are talking about the restricted-use they/them/their that you seem to be insisting must be called "generic they". The ambiguity and imprecision of the colloquial name is unfortunate, but the term "singular they" was established already for this phenomenon long before modern gender politics. I'd imagine it was coined by a prescriptivist critic. Former posts in this thread are talking about the "widespread misconception" that "generic they" (in your terms) is ungrammatical.

The idea that interest in the linguistic phenomenon of "generic they" (in your terms; most people just call it "singular they") is entirely restricted to "stupid and/or lying" people who are actually just interested in advocating for "they" as a specific gender-neutral pronoun for gender-politics-related reasons doesn't make much sense to me. IIRC, a number of the old Language Log posts about this topic explicitly noted the restriction to non-specific people, and expressed interest in collecting examples of usages with specific people precisely because it was seen as something innovative. There was a huge blowup over Geoff Pullum's most recent post about the topic where he mentioned that "singular they" is ungrammatical for him with a specific person's name as the referent, and used the word "he" in reference to an individual whose preferred pronoun was "they". (Pullum updated the post with a note saying the initial use of "he" had been accidental.) My point in mentioning this is that linguistic interest in "singular they" is not exactly confined to the vanguard of wokeness; my impression is that it rather developed in part as an extension of general critiques of non-usage-based prescriptivist rules.

The restrictions of the naturally evolved usage of third-person-plural pronouns to refer to a single individual are I think a bit more complicated than you're making them out to be. "One specific person" obviously excludes something like "Sally took their umbrella with them", but in the example Fooge used at the start of the thread, the antecedent was "Your doctor", whose identity will obviously vary between listeners (and who may be an entirely hypothetical individual for some listeners), but will be specific for each individual listener who has a doctor.


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 27, 2018 5:22 am 
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Nortaneous wrote:
What you won't find outside fringe dialects spoken by the ostentatiously woke is "they" being used to refer to one specific person.


Maybe instead of indulging your political paranoia, you should remember your linguistics, which requires actual evidence, and some diffidence when making universal claims about half a billion people's speech.

First, the term "singular they" is widespread, and obviously and reasonably refers to using "they" for singular referents. It's kind of weird to insist on renaming it, then redefining it in a way nobody but you will use.

Second, as for the usage of singular they, your statement is simply wrong. Of course "they" can be used to refer to "one specific person":

Would whoever left their hat in the microwave please retrieve it?
If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.
Talk to your lawyer and do what they tell you.
I have to compliment the writer of episode #33; they're very clever.
I have a friend who has that same problem, and this is what they do.


These are not generic, like "Anyone who practices every day will improve their French." Or to be precise, some of them could be generic, but I'm intending them in a specific sense-- e.g. the third one is spoken to a particular person rather than being generic legal advice.

These can be used if the gender of the person is unknown, but also if it's irrelevant, not remembered at the moment, or purposefully unspecified. In all these cases, so far as I can see, singular "they" is equivalent to "he or she".

As Sumelic notes, for many people, referring to a named individual with "they" is harder. Pullum describes singular they as "indefinite or quantifier-like", while Henry Churchyard offers an example:

Quote:
Where singular "their" cannot be used is when referring to a strongly-individualized single person about whom there is some specific information. So the following attempt at pronominal reference would fail, even if one did not know (or did not wish to reveal) the sex of "Chris": "Chris was born on February, 25th 1963, the youngest of three siblings, is 5 feet 9 inches tall with red hair, graduated from Slippery Rock college, is currently working as an accountant, has never married, and is fond of listening to jazz. They..."


Note the handwavy, ad hoc description Churchyard is forced to resort to. "Strongly-individualized single person about whom there is some specific information" certainly can't be reduced to "specific" or "non-generic".

But even these nuanced claims may be wrong, or simply outdated. As one of my professors said, declaring that a sentence is ungrammatical often just means that we haven't yet thought of a context where it could be used. I don't think it would be very hard to make the "Chris" example acceptable. Indeed, Pullum supplies an example in the blog entry Sumelic links to:

Quote:
A Philadelphia resident was shocked to receive a letter Friday saying they won an election earlier in the month — apparently because no one else cast a vote.
"I literally yelled 'what the hell' when I opened the letter," Phillip Garcia told The Hill.


Now, it turns out there's a specific reason the writer used 'they'. But it doesn't matter. The quote reads fine to me as is; I probably wouldn't have even noticed the use of "they" until it was pointed out. It's referring to a specific person, certainly a "strongly-individualized single person about whom there is some specific information", and who will be named, but who hasn't been given a name yet.

And any of the examples I used above could be extended... I could talk for a long time about my friend of unspecified gender using "they", and this is probably not true of "he or she". Again, not wishing to reveal the person's gender, or perhaps the sexuality of the person speaking, are sufficient reasons for the usage.

Finally, there's the use of "they" for specific people because they want to be referred to that way. Garcia is one of them. It's not exactly a new phenomenon that people want to mess with the pronoun system-- Dennis Baron has chronicled 150 years of attempts to create an epicene pronoun in English. It's surprising that it's more or less taken off today, though not much more surprising than, say, the widespread use of emoji.


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PostPosted: Sat Jan 27, 2018 1:01 pm 
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I think there are very few situations where I couldn't use 'they' for a specific person or thing. It's true that I'm less likely to use it in certain cases (immediately juxtaposed with some obvious indicator of gender) than in others (everywhere else), but I don't think it's even ungrammatical for me. For instance, "Sally told me they'd had a letter from you" is perfectly fine (my only quibble would be potential ambiguity if we're also talking about some plural third person in the same conversation (which 'they'?), so I might use 'she' to disambiguate, but where the context is clear there's no grammatical problem for me).

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 28, 2018 10:05 pm 
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zompist wrote:
Note the handwavy, ad hoc description Churchyard is forced to resort to.

Yes, terminology is imprecise, and in cases where there's no standard terminology it's necessary to either borrow terminology that isn't quite right but gets the message across well enough or resort to handwavy ad-hoc descriptions. Which is why it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to nitpick about the extent to which my terminology isn't quite right -- that's like noticing that someone is talking about the Latin ablative and jumping in with "actually, the ablative is used in certain situations that don't involve motion away from, and isn't used in certain situations that do involve motion away from". The Latin ablative isn't an ablative in the strict dictionary sense, and the English generic pronoun isn't a generic pronoun in the strict dictionary sense, but you have to call it something.

Maybe "indefinite" would be better than "generic". Whatever.

zompist wrote:
Indeed, Pullum supplies an example in the blog entry Sumelic links to:

Quote:
A Philadelphia resident was shocked to receive a letter Friday saying they won an election earlier in the month — apparently because no one else cast a vote.
"I literally yelled 'what the hell' when I opened the letter," Phillip Garcia told The Hill.


Now, it turns out there's a specific reason the writer used 'they'. But it doesn't matter. The quote reads fine to me as is; I probably wouldn't have even noticed the use of "they" until it was pointed out. It's referring to a specific person, certainly a "strongly-individualized single person about whom there is some specific information", and who will be named, but who hasn't been given a name yet.

Sure, grammaticality judgments are fuzzy. Using "they" for an individualized referent who hasn't been named yet is probably less grammatical than using "they" with "everyone" or "whoever" -- certainly it would be less likely to used, and my guess is that more people would in this context have difficulties in producing the "they"-form of the sentence in context.

zompist wrote:
And any of the examples I used above could be extended... I could talk for a long time about my friend of unspecified gender using "they", and this is probably not true of "he or she". Again, not wishing to reveal the person's gender, or perhaps the sexuality of the person speaking, are sufficient reasons for the usage.

I know people who try to do this exact thing! They aren't very good at it and have to correct themselves all the time.

(By contrast, there's no difficulty in doing that when the non-individualized plural is allowable. Obviously it isn't in all contexts, but it is here -- I actually only know one person who tries to do this, and she's a basically normal apolitical sort who ended up living in an illegal communist compound -- I've been there and there is literally a picture of Mao on the wall -- because otherwise the rent would be too damn high. [David Hines voice] the movement has to be useful)

zompist wrote:
Finally, there's the use of "they" for specific people because they want to be referred to that way. Garcia is one of them. It's not exactly a new phenomenon that people want to mess with the pronoun system-- Dennis Baron has chronicled 150 years of attempts to create an epicene pronoun in English. It's surprising that it's more or less taken off today, though not much more surprising than, say, the widespread use of emoji.


If it were actually taking off, it'd be grammatical. But it's not. People are trying to make it take off, but if you go out and talk to the people who try to use it as a definite (or whatever you want to call it) epicene pronoun, in spoken English, where you don't get time to edit before you hit post, they have a hell of a hard time with it.

Sumelic wrote:
The idea that interest in the linguistic phenomenon of "generic they" (in your terms; most people just call it "singular they") is entirely restricted to "stupid and/or lying" people who are actually just interested in advocating for "they" as a specific gender-neutral pronoun for gender-politics-related reasons doesn't make much sense to me.

Not entirely restricted. But when people say that Chaucer used generic (or indefinite, or non-individualized, or whatever) they and therefore epicene-pronominal they is unquestionably 100% grammatical and has been for centuries, that's either stupid or a lie. And people do that all the time.

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 29, 2018 1:46 pm 
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I mean, I've got a couple of friends who use "they", and I've never had a problem using it as a pronoun to refer to them. I agree that the transition from a different pronoun to "they" can be difficult and have a lot of slip-ups, but that's because you're used to one pronoun and are transitioning to a different pronoun--I don't think the confusion in such a transition is inherent to "they" as opposed to any other pronoun.

In the cases of both of my friends, there's not a lot of confusion with what pronoun to use because... I've never actually used any other pronouns for them! I literally don't know what their "birth" gender is/was. So there's nothing for me to confuse "they" with.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 6:34 am 
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The gradual extension of "they" to more singular contexts seems extremely likely to me - indeed, if I had to predict anything about the future of English this would be near the top of the things I'd think most probable. I don't think it's necessarily got much to do with "wokeness", really. English has a very typologically weird system at the moment - marking number on third person pronouns but not second persons - and that's something you'd expect to see obliterated eventually.

The use of singular "us" in some English dialects might also be part of a very long-term general trend toward losing the number distinction on pronouns (specifically, by replacing the singular with the plural).

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 1:33 pm 
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I don't think number distinctions are going to be lost on English personal pronouns because many dialects have done the opposite and revived a number distinction (e.g. you guys, y'all, you lot, youse, you uns, ye) in the second person where such had previously been lost.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 1:48 pm 
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Curlyjimsam wrote:
The use of singular "us" in some English dialects might also be part of a very long-term general trend toward losing the number distinction on pronouns (specifically, by replacing the singular with the plural).

In retrospect, it was adopting the royal "we" in the 12th century which set us on this slippery slope...

I have to agree with Travis here. What languages can you think of without number distinctions in pronouns? Even those without number distinctions for any other grammatical category (e.g. Chinese) retain them for pronouns.

I've already caught myself saying "they all" by analogy with "you all" to disambiguate when "they" really has multiple referents.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 1:57 pm 
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linguoboy wrote:
What languages can you think of without number distinctions in pronouns?

Taos.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 2:48 pm 
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Vijay wrote:
linguoboy wrote:
What languages can you think of without number distinctions in pronouns?

Taos.

I will confess to having completely neglected to take into account the possible effects of a Taotian adstratum on the future development of the English pronominal system.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 2:54 pm 
Sumerul
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linguoboy wrote:
Vijay wrote:
linguoboy wrote:
What languages can you think of without number distinctions in pronouns?

Taos.

I will confess to having completely neglected to take into account the possible effects of a Taotian adstratum on the future development of the English pronominal system.

:P Sorry. I didn't mean to say it made any difference to how English pronouns (will) work, just couldn't resist answering the question because I've always found it intriguing that it's the only language I know of with a pronoun system like that. :)

"They all" is like Tamil (and a bunch of other languages, of course, but still)! The Tamil 3PL pronoun is just the 3SG genderless one + a pluralizing morpheme.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 3:52 pm 
Sanno
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Vijay wrote:
just couldn't resist answering the question because I've always found it intriguing that it's the only language I know of with a pronoun system like that.

I know. It's part of your charm.

You did remind me that I've come across the equivalent of "they all" in Cajun French, where eux-autres is found in some dialects by analogy with vous-autres and nous-autres.


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PostPosted: Thu Feb 01, 2018 4:32 pm 
Šriftom
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linguoboy wrote:
I've already caught myself saying "they all" by analogy with "you all" to disambiguate when "they" really has multiple referents.

And I have caught myself saying we guys for the first person plural...

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Dibotahamdn duthma jallni agaynni ra hgitn lakrhmi.
Amuhawr jalla vowa vta hlakrhi hdm duthmi xaja.
Irdro. Irdro. Irdro. Irdro. Irdro. Irdro. Irdro.


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