A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

First person plural

 “You really need get better with your use of pronouns, Dad.”

Given that I was not the target of the teens’ lecture on grammatical usage – specifically, singular “they” for non-binary individuals -- I was happy to snicker from the couch.  My own pronoun-fluency might be shaky and my linguistic knowledge embarrassingly sparse, old-fashioned, and European/colonial, but for now, at least, they (third person plural) were correcting him (third person singular) rather than me (first person singular).  

We know about this, Dad.  Listen to us.  In our classes…

We/us/our. These are not contentious words, but in the context of pronouns I found myself noticing my kids’ casual use of the first-person plural.  As twins, despite their differences and arguments, they are often “we”.  Way back, I fretted that this might be a problem, but I’ve long since stopped worrying that they won’t forge highly distinct identities.  So why does their “we” still occasionally make me pause?

The first-person plural sometimes catches my attention when friends use it, too. We’re heading down to Denali for the weekend. We have tickets for the show. I notice it most when it’s used to describe not just shared actions, but also shared states of mind. We love that book!  We always laugh when that happens.  We’re planning.  We’re hoping.  We can’t wait! 

Does “we” confuse me?  Does it make me jealous, or anxious, or wistful, or lonely?  Do I use it less than other people do?  Existentially, is there an ideal level of “we” in everyone’s life?  Does it differ from person to person, and place to place?  How does “we” fit into a culture, and a language?

I’ve heard the argument that the way we view the world is limited by what words exist in our language.  This seems overly simplistic; English doesn’t have words for “hygge” or “iktsuarpok” or “greng-jai”*, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand those concepts, or haven’t experienced those feelings.  I just need more words to say these things.  And yet, I’d agree that the words that a language offers – or doesn’t -- reflect something about the assumptions, the biases, the blind spots, and the strengths of a culture.  How, then, have English pronouns affected my worldview?  And what does the whole global Babel have to offer in the realm of pronouns? 

I know that many languages – unlike English -- offer a wealth of ways in which to show varying levels of formality, respect, and relatedness.  I’m relived that mine doesn’t; I’m not fond of formalities, and I’m sure I’d make egregious social errors.  I’m likewise glad that we’re not like the French – and many others – who insist on assigning random genders to objects.  The petunia, he is flowering!  The mustache, she is curly!  The vagina, he is… wait, what?  And the prostate is female.  Okay, cool.  I guess the French already understand gender fluidity?  Or not? 

The Duolingo owl-mascot was mocking my ignorance. With a combination of genuine linguistic curiosity and blatant procrastination, I started Googling, and took a deep pronoun dive. 

English, as it turns out, is even more lacking than I thought it was. 

I already knew, as alluded to by the teen admonitions above, that English’s third-person options are problematic. He, she… Why use gendered pronouns at all? Sometimes a person’s gender is neutral, and sometimes it is unknown. It’s rarely salient.  Being constantly reminded of gender and forced to reference it in every sentence is annoying. Logically, we could pare down third-person pronouns to “it” and “they”, but “it” is considered so offensive when used for people that we struggle when admiring someone’s infant, or even their dog.  Due to our “it” aversion, we long ago started using singular “they” for a person of unknown gender, as in, “What if you had a really weird English teacher, and they forced you to read blog posts about grammar?”  I don’t want to dehumanize anyone, so I’ll roll with this -- and I’ll try to do so smoothly enough to prove that I’m not an old fart.

I also already knew that our second-person pronouns are insufficient.  I like simplicity and equality, but English is downright spartan here.  We need a plural “you”. Would you like to come over for supper?  Does this mean my whole family is invited?  Or just me?  Can I ask for clarification without seeming pushy? What if I offer to bring a pie?  Southerners use “y’all” and some New Yorkers resort to “yous”.  I’m more New York than Southern, notwithstanding the homemade pecan pie I’m bringing, so I’m voting “yous”.  What do yous think of this plan?

That’s two strikes against English for third-person and second-person issues… but I’d never considered that our first-person pronouns are also limiting.  This is where we get back to “we” – and my weird feelings about it. 

As it turns out, the reason why “we” sometimes feels exclusive rather than inclusive is due to something called. . . wait for it. . . “clusivity”.  Clusivity addresses the question of whether the speaker is referring to people who are part of the conversation, or to people who aren’t: does “we” mean “me and you(s)” or “me and he/she/it/them”? 

Apparently many languages – Mandarin, Lakota, Vietnamese, Maori, Punjabi, Hawaiian, Cree, Fula, and dozens of others spread across the world – have different words for “we that includes the person being spoken to”, and “we that does not”.  This distinction is lacking not only in English, but in every other western European language – although it’s present in American Sign Language.

Obviously, it’s not impossible to disambiguate.  As with “hygge”, it just takes more words, an understanding of normal social rules, and maybe some pie.  Still, clusivity fascinates me, because it seems so closely tied to a sense of belonging, to community, to the difference between individual and group thinking, to partnerships, friendships, marriages, kinship, barriers and boundaries. Where am I in the Venn diagrams that helpfully illustrate the Wikipedia page on clusivity? 

The more I think about it, the more the two meanings of “we” seem radically different, conceptually and emotionally.  If my kids use “we” to mean just the two of them – “We’ll do it later!” that’s very different from the “we” that also includes me – Can we go to the library this weekend?  If a friend uses “we” to mean the two of us – We could grab some Thai food for lunch – that’s not at all the same as the “we” that includes only my friend and some default other person who is definitely not me – We always play cribbage on Fridays.  We love that movie!  We’re planning an exciting trip to a sunny far-off land with way more pronouns than America.  One type of “we” makes me feel connected, and one type… not so much.  Inclusive “we”, exclusive “we”.  Why did I ever think they were the same word? 

Well, because my language decided that for me.  Duh.

Is “duh” really a word?  Do other languages have a word for “duh”?

Deep in my nerdy linguistic investigation, I told the twins about what I’d read. You know how you were talking about pronouns?  There’s this concept called clusivity…

As it turned out, my knowledge of pronouns was just as laughably deficient as their dad’s.  We already know all about that, Mom. We had a long discussion about whether to have one pronoun or two for “we”, when we were inventing our own language.

Duh. Of course they did.  That’s so last year.  Actually, that was almost three years ago, but who’s counting?  I wandered away, carrying my wounded pride wrapped up in my kids’ exclusive “we”.

But a few days later, curious, I circled back.  What pronouns, I inquired, did they ultimately decide upon, back when they were inventing that language? 

The answer, it turned out, was that they went for simplicity.  They settled on just six – singular and plural for first, second, and third person. 

I felt pleased that my opinions matched theirs when it came to ditching genders and adding something akin to “yous”.  My internal logic was sound and up-to-date!  Hip, even!  As for their choice regarding the lack of separate words for inclusive and exclusive “we”, I’m ambivalent.  I still haven’t decided how I’d parse that, if I had any power whatsoever over linguistics.  I still haven’t decided whether the distinction is meaningful and influential, or just a semantic blip.  I don’t know whether my culture’s focus on individualism has biased our language, and whether that in turn steers the way we think about being part of a pair, a partnership, a group, a community, a “we”.  I’m still not sure whether “we, but definitely not including you” would feel better or worse, conversationally and emotionally, if we had a word for that.

In examining my own clusivity, I realize that although I’m a sister, a spouse, a mother, and a friend, and have been part of two different nuclear families, I’ve never had an automatic “exclusive we” -- a plural version of myself that I drop casually into conversation.  Of course, I frequently use both types of “we”-- We’re collaborating on a paper.  We’re going skiing.  We made chana masala and naan -- but always with pre-stated names or other semantic clues, not as a default.  I rarely if ever profess exclusive-we emotional states: we think, we hope, we dream, we love.  Is this cultural?  Personal?  Something about my upbringing?  Is such isolationism more common in speakers of languages with limited clusivity options?  I don’t know.  True, I’m usually glad to have autonomy, neural privacy, and first-person-singularity. I’ve been alone in my head for half a century, and I’m used to it. But sometimes I long for a Vulcan mind-meld.  Sometimes I miss the phantom twin I never had.  Sometimes I want another word for “we”.

On the bright side, we -- the twins and I -- had an excellent conversation.  I felt… included.  I also felt educated by my teenagers, which can only be a good thing.

The kids are alright.

And me?  I really need to get better with my use of pronouns.


* Hygge (Danish): a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.

Iktsuarpok (Inuktitut): the feeling of anticipation while waiting for someone to arrive, often leading to intermittently going outside to check for them.

Greng-jai (Thai): being aware of other people’s feelings and showing politeness, respect and consideration, particularly in a manner that helps others save face and avoids inconveniencing them.