Words such as you and they are known as pronouns, from the idea that they replace a noun or noun phrase in the sentence:
After the car left the road, it hit the safety barrier.
The characteristics of pronouns vary from language to language.
Pronouns connect to the situation at the moment of speaking or writing – who’s speaking to whom and who else is bring talked about, called ‘person’. In English I refers to the person who is speaking (first person) I believe, you to the person spoken to (second person) I believe you and he/she/it to anybody else (third person) I believe he spoke to you.
But the number of persons is not the same in every language. Navaho has a fourth person used to refer to anybody else who gets mentioned after the third person.
Some English pronouns vary according to how many people are referred to, called number: one (singular) I/he/she etc versus more than one (plural) we/they. Singular and plural do not affect the English second person you, except in Geordie you/youse, Dublin you/yis, and British Jamaican yu/unu.
However in many languages the plural you form is used to show respect, the singular you for friendliness: French tu/vous, German du/Sie, etc. German mountaineers are supposed to switch from formal Sie to friendly du after they reach a certain altitude.
Old English, however, had a three-way contrast between singular ic (I), plural we and dual wit, i.e. two people, also found in Arabic and Tok Pisin, mi/mitupela/yupela; Fijian has four numbers, having a trial form for three people.
In English, pronouns are virtually the only kind of word that varies in form according to its role in the sentence, called ‘case’:
Subject: She went to Spain.
Object: John annoyed her.
Possessive: The car was hers.
Other languages can have far more cases to show different grammatical roles for pronouns in the sentence; Old English had four and used them for nouns as well as pronouns; Latin had 6; modern Finnish has fifteen, a big problem for second language learners.
The pro-drop parameter
So-called ‘prodrop’ or 'null subject' languages have sentences with no actual pronoun subjects:
Italian: Sono di Torino (am from Turin; no I)
Chinese: Shuo (speak; no I)
Languages in which there must be a pronoun subject in the sentence are called ‘non-pro-drop’ languages:
English: I am from London.
German: Er spricht. (he speaks)
As English sentences must have a
pronoun, dummy subjects it and there get added in where other languages don’t need them:
It is snowing hard (what is it?
Added to obey the non-pro-drop rule)
There is a man in the moon.
(What is there? Added to provide a
English pronouns then have 3 persons, 2 numbers and 3 cases and is non-pro-drop; Old English had 3 persons, 3 numbers, 5 cases and was non-pro-drop. Other languages make still more distinctions such as gender; Thai has a first person pronoun only used by women when speaking to the king kramòm. Even the humble pronoun shows the diversity of the ways in which human beings relate to the world around them.
Content and structure words Pronouns and Power
Words index Vivian Cook