Register, genre and referential ambiguity of personal pronouns: A cross-linguistic analysis

Barbara De Cock


This paper argues for revisiting the traditional adscription of ambiguous readings of personal pronouns, such as hearer-dominant we or generic you, pluralis maiestatis and pluralis modestiae to specific genres and/or registers. Indeed, in many languages these phenomena are considered typical for a certain genre, register or discourse context. In this paper, I will argue, on the basis of quantitative data and a qualitative analysis of examples taken from different genres (including purposefully creative language use in fiction), that a more accurate account may be formulated in terms of (inter)subjective effect, viz. the attention to the (inter)locutor (among others Benveniste 1966), as a more suitable explanation for the variation of these phenomena attested in corpora.The hearer-oriented uses of we, for instance, are considered typical for relationships characterized by power asymmetries such as teacher-student, doctor-patient (Haverkate 1984: 87; Brown & Levinson 1987), whereas generic and speaker-referring you have been considered a feature of (informal) oral language than written discourse (Hidalgo Navarro 1996). Recent corpus-based analyses including quantitative and qualitative analyses, however, call for a more nuanced view (De Cock 2011 on Spanish and English; Tarenskeen 2010 on Dutch). We may, for example, find hearer-oriented or even hearer-dominant 1st person plural forms (Have we taken our medicine?) in contexts where no power- relationship can be defined, e.g. among couples.It will be shown that these uses have different intersubjective effects, however. Their distribution is in line with overall differences as to intersubjectivity according to register and genre, beyond referential ambiguity. The concept of (inter)subjectivity then allows for a more comprehensive analysis of these phenomena and their occurrence in specific registers and genres, addressing the way in which the (inter)locutor is taken into account in each genre.

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