Pronouns are little words with big responsibility. They stand in for nouns, can sum up whole phrases, and give more information about the noun itself. In this post, we'll dig into some pronouns about people and possession and how they might work differently in the language you're learning!
Pronouns avoid unnecessary repetition.
Grammatically, pronouns' main job is to take the place of something that's already been said, that way you're not repeating yourself so much. (That "pro" in "pronoun" literally means "in place of.")
So if Junior is talking about bubble gum ice cream with sprinkles, the first time he brings it up he might say "Bubble gum ice cream with sprinkles is my absolute favorite!" And the next time he mentions it, he might just say "It is so good that I want to eat it for every meal!" That sentence means the same as "Bubble gum ice cream with sprinkles is so good that I want to eat bubble gum ice cream with sprinkles for every meal," but using the pronoun it is useful because we already know what he's referring to.
Pronouns also work with people's names. Instead of always repeating someone's whole name, you can refer back to them with a pronoun. So instead of saying "Junior loves ice cream, and if Junior had Junior's way, Junior would eat it for every meal," a more natural way to say it is with pronouns: "Junior loves ice cream, and if he had his way, he would eat it for every meal."
Pronouns tell us different things in different languages.
Pronouns include all sorts of information, depending on the language! They help indicate:
- Formality. * In Spanish, tú "you" is the pronoun for speaking directly to a person you know well, and usted "you" is the pronoun for speaking to someone you don't know or should be polite towards.
- How many. In French, tu "you" is the pronoun for talking to one person, and vous "you all" is used for talking to a group of people. (And actually, vous is also the formal pronoun!) We used to have this in English, too: thou was for talking to one person, and you was only for talking to groups!
- Who is included. In some languages, including Hawaiian and Vietnamese there is one pronoun for "we" when you mean you and the person you're talking to (inclusive), and a different version of "we" when you mean you and someone else who isn't the person you're talking to (exclusive).
- Traits of people and things. Some languages have different pronouns for men and women, in other languages categories are based on animacy (whether something is human or not), and languages like Swahili have categories for animals, things that are expansive (like lakes and the sky), and many more!
Pronouns can indicate the gender of any noun, people included.
Some languages, including many languages from Europe, categorize nouns by gender, so there are pronouns for the different gender categories, too -- even for nouns that aren't about people. So in a language like Spanish, which divides nouns into masculine and feminine, human men as well as masculine nouns like teléfono "phone" and zapato "shoe" all get matched with masculine pronouns like él "he" and este "this [masculine only]." German and Russian have masculine and feminine categories, as well as a third category called neuter. (English nouns used to be masculine, feminine, or neuter, too! We’ll get more into gendered nouns in a future post.)
Sometimes when talking about people, the gender of the person or group of people isn't known, relevant, or covered by the two categories of men (masculine pronouns) and women (feminine pronouns). Languages have different ways of addressing those situations. English often uses they in these situations, and has been doing so for hundreds of years.
- Yesterday I was in line behind this person at Target, and they were taking forever! (person's gender isn't known or relevant)
- If someone isn't feeling well, they should stay home. (person's gender isn't relevant)
- My friend was telling me that their family is coming to visit next week. (person's gender is not relevant or not covered by the two categories of men and women)
In languages like Spanish and Italian, pronouns aren't always necessary, so sometimes choosing either masculine or feminine isn't an issue at all—you can just leave it out! In other cases, where a pronoun is necessary but the person it refers to doesn't identify as a man or a woman, languages are evolving new pronouns, like Spanish elle. This is called a neopronoun, or new pronoun, and some English neopronouns are ze and xe.
Pronouns can evolve and change over time.
We come up with new nouns and verbs all the time -- if you can believe it, there was once a time when "googling" wasn't a thing, and neither were "podcasts." Pronouns don't change as much, but they do come, go, and change!
In fact, the English pronoun they didn't even come from English: it was borrowed from a Scandinavian language almost a thousand years ago, and the original English pronoun slowly dropped out of use and vanished from the language. English "you" has also changed a lot over the last millenium; it used to be only for groups of people (like "y'all") or for formal situations with one person. Today it's used for talking directly to anyone, no matter how formal or whether it's one person or a hundred.
You can expect to learn something new about pronouns in the language you're studying! That might mean learning new categories, new formalities, or new genders. What have you noticed about pronouns in your new language?