Towards a typology of human impersonal pronouns

Theoretical, comparative and empirical studies

Welcome ...

... to the website of the bilateral cooperation project on impersonal pronouns jointly carried out at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena (PI Volker Gast) and the Laboratoire "Structures formelles du langage" (UMR 7023 CNRS & Paris 8, PI Patricia Cabredo Hofherr).

The topic of the project

Human impersonal pronouns such as German and Norwegian man (e.g. Man lebt nur einmal, Man lever bare en gang. 'One only lives once') pose a number of challenges to descriptive linguistics as well as contemporary syntactic and semantic theories. They generalize over (sets of) human referents and background the argument position that they fill, thus having a semantic effect similar to that of relevant operations on argument structure like impersonal passives (e.g. Ge. Es wurde getanzt 'People danced') and impersonal middles (e.g. Sp. Se habla español 'Spanish spoken'). A subset of the human impersonal pronouns can be interpreted more or less like existential indefinite pronouns such as Sp. alguien and Ge. jemand, though they differ systematically from the latter in their semantic and syntactic properties.

This project investigates the syntactic and semantic properties of human impersonal pronouns such as Ge. man and Engl. one and compares them with impersonal uses of second person singular (tu/du/you) and third person plural pronouns (ils/sie/they), or the corresponding forms of verbs (e.g. Russian Zhiveš' tol'ko raz 'One only lives once', V Gollandii často provodât vystavki cvetov 'They often hold flower exhibitions in Holland'). Based on a sample of forty European and twenty non-European languages a typology of human impersonal pronouns is being developed, with the aim of formulating generalizations concerning the patterns and limits of variation in this domain. The crosslinguistic data collected will be made publicly available in an online database, which is currently under construction. On the semantic side, the project focuses on the interaction of impersonal constructions with specific types of context (e.g. assertive vs. non-assertive, generic vs. episodic). On the syntactic side, it investigates the binding and agreement properties of human impersonal pronouns.

The project combines a crosslinguistic overview with detailed semantic and syntactic investigations to bridge the gap between accurate empirical research and contemporary theorizing in the domain of impersonals. More generally, the project aims to make a contribution to our understanding of the interaction between lexically and grammatically encoded information on the one hand, and information contributed by the context, on the other.