Author Topic: Is animacy distinction more common in interrogative than in personal pronouns?  (Read 22 times)

Offline FlatAssembler

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It seems to me (though I could be wrong) that the distinction between "who" and "what" is, for some reason, much more common that the distinction between "it" and "he/she". The only language I know about that does not differentiate between "who" and "what" is Lithuanian, while there seem to be plenty of languages that do not differentiate between "it" and "he/she" (Turkish, many dialects of Chinese, many dialects of Finnish...). Is my observation correct? And, if so, what is the reason for it?

Offline Daniel

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That's an interesting question.

With "why" questions in Linguistics, the answer is generally historical. What are the grammaticalization paths that these words follow? There may also be a usage based explanation, that humans speaking languages are more likely to distinguish question words for animacy than pronouns, but I'm not sure why that would be. My instinct here is that pronouns typically develop in parallel from forms marked with whatever (or no) genders or noun classes, while "who" may be more likely to develop from a subject (i.e. nominative) form (as humans are more likely to be actors) and "what" from an object (i.e. accusative) form (as inanimate objects are more likely to be acted upon)*, resulting in a potential different form. Other possibilities for 'who' etymologies would of course include 'which/what person', etc. Third-person pronouns tend to develop from demonstratives, so it's less likely that extra forms would be created during that grammaticalization process. There's also the fact that Wh-words are to some degree inherently emphatic (according to some derivational syntactic theories they're focused or topicalized when fronted), while pronouns are often background information.

(*An interesting pattern in the Indo-European languages is nominative-accusative syncretism [systematic identity] for neuter nouns, because of this same frequency effect, that neuter [typically inanimate] nouns are more likely to be objects than subjects.)

It could be revealing to look at the etymologies of these words in a number of languages (but you'd want to look beyond Indo-European, where etymological dictionaries would be harder to find) to see if there are clear patterns.
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