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He Said, She Said

May 20, 2010

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Barrie Hardymon

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Ok, so first of all, this post is about an article written by a — wait for it — really cool psycholinguist. Second of all, it's about pronouns, best known for making us stumble in our speech when we reach a critical him or I. But it is fascinating, if only because I never understood how essential pronouns are to easy speech.  Here's some analysis of a study done at the University of South Carolina, where brains were scanned in an fMRI machine while reading them sentences that contained either proper nouns or their pronominal equivalents:

The lead researcher has an interesting interpretation: listening to proper names, over and over again, can be disruptive. Each proper name will bring with it a host of associations—not all of them particularly relevant. Think about it. When you hear the name Emily Dickinson, you may not just retrieve aspects of Emily Dickinson's life and work; you may also think of every Emily you've ever known, as well as the time you considered naming the family dog Emily. Or you may access a beloved high school English teacher, or the embarrassment you felt when you read a Dickinson poem aloud to your seventh-grade class and pronounced all of the dashes.

What's fascinating here, is how loaded words are — how much baggage each morsel of English carries for us.  I can't hear the words "Anne Boleyn" without thinking of all the different ways I've experienced the doomed English queen (Philippa Gregory!  Genevieve Bujold!). Words are important, names are important, so much so that we have to have placeholders to draw some of their venom, or ambrosia, as the case may be.

Read the article: it's dense, but interesting, for language lovers.  For instance, what other part of speech still denotes case, or gender?  And those things are very important, if you want to know who threw the ball, and who got hit by it.  Or, as the author, Jessica Love points out:

Last year, arriving late to a departmental Christmas party, I was immediately greeted by a waifish 10-year-old with pale skin, delicate features, neatly braided long brown hair, and a stuffed clown fish. The girl solemnly informed me that her stuffed animal was dying of diphtheria. "Oh no!" I cried in mock horror. "Is your fish contagious?" Perhaps fearing I would launch into a speech about how young ladies should be careful around contagious fish, a fellow graduate student quickly interjected, "He's sure the fish isn't contagious. I asked him that same question." And that is how I learned that the strange girl with the delicate features and the long braid was in fact a boy.

Essential little suckers, those pronouns.

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