What Pronouns Say About the Way We Think

Martin Buber asked important questions about how we relate to one another through pronouns.
Martin Buber asked important questions about how we relate to one another through pronouns. | Source

"I am he as you are he...

...as you are me and we are all together."

"I Am the Walrus" by John Lennon

Why is John Lennon's pronoun acid trip so compelling? It's a dance of identity, challenging us to make sense of who's who. (It's also a riff on "I'm with you and you're with me" in the song "Marching to Pretoria.")

I first became aware of the power of pronouns through language studies. Many languages use gendered nouns and pronouns, going far beyond our habit of assigning "she" to ships, countries, and abstract ideas. Many languages use "he" or "she" as pronouns for words like table, dress, carrot, which we would not think of as having a gender. Meanwhile, we're still fighting with English and its not-so-universal pronoun "he." ("Man, being a mammal, suckles his young," as an infamous textbook at my college declared).

Pronouns express and shape how we view ourselves and other people. Use Google to search for, "in all cases except the female," and you will immediately see how woman is still considered an exception to the rule in nearly every professional field. Or, to get away from gender issues, see this Washington Post column on the implications of ownership in Coulter's statement that "our blacks are so much better than their blacks."

Mistranslating Freud

Freud and Man's Soul: An Important Re-Interpretation of Freudian Theory
Freud and Man's Soul: An Important Re-Interpretation of Freudian Theory

Bruno Bettelheim's book was a real eye-opener for me. I had thought Freud was a sex-obsessed misogynist. While there's a grain of truth to that, I had not realized the extent to which translations of Freud completely missed what he had to say about our SOUL — which is the word he used, not psyche — and how we've misunderstood psychology for much of a century due to overly-technical, misleadingly scientific translations of Freud's pioneering work.

 

Freud: The "I" and the "It"

Pronoun mistranslations have had a huge impact in the field of psychology, the study of who we are and how we think about ourselves and other people.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, translator James Strachey translated Sigmund Freud's down-to-earth language about people's feelings into lofty-sounding Latin. I love Latin! There's just one problem. Latin sounds technical, medical, intimidating, cryptic and impersonal, whereas Freud was using personal, emotional, and everyday words to describe human experience. (Please put aside cigars and sex for a moment. Freud had other things to say.) For instance, Freud never talked about our psyche. He talked about our soul!

Back to pronouns. Freud uses das Es to describe our basic, unthinking impulses, which Strachey translated into Latin Id, which simply means "it." In German, das Es is the everyday "it" pronoun used by adults for a young child, das Kind, a noun whose gender is neuter. At this age, from infant to toddler, a child does not really have a sense of other people as other people. Nor does das Kind have much self-awareness. So Freud's term, das Es, attempts to express that state of mind when we haven't moved past "[I'm] hungry!" "[I'm] wet!"

At about age 3-5, German das Kind is replaced in everyday speech by der Junge, "the boy," and das Mädchen, "the girl." (In German, the boy is masculine. The girl is not feminine until she becomes a woman, die Frau. Language tells you so much about cultural assumptions.) So, putting poor das Mädchen aside for the moment, Freud's term das Ich, "the I," translated by Strachey as Ego, is our sense of self-awareness when we grow from toddler to child, learning about facets of our self-identity such as gender. The transition from das Es to das Ich state of of mind is the journey to awareness of identity: of one's own and that of other people.

Freud was trying to explore two different ways we experience the world: through our baby-self, our das Es self, and our more mature das Ich self. Using fancy-schmancy Latin pronouns like "id" and "ego" obscures the point Freud was trying to make, using everyday pronouns to express different layers of our personalities, our very souls.

Martin Buber: I and Thou

I And Thou
I And Thou

This translation does a fairly good job of capturing the author's intent. Martin Buber is not simply talking about how we perceive one another (I and you). His Ich-Du Ich-Es discussion is all about how we relate to GOD, either by imaging God as an abstraction that we don't really experience as a living being (Es), or as a real, thinking presence apart from ourselves to whom we must respond (Du). It's a good book, a thoughtful approach to belief, God and religion.

 

Martin Buber: I and Thou

Freud's contemporary, philosopher Martin Buber, wrote a book Ich und Du about the way we experience ourselves and other people when we perceive them as a living being with thoughts and feelings akin to our own.

Buber distinguishes the Ich-Du (I and you) relationship from Ich-Es (I and it). Buber claims that we actually experience most strangers as a mere Es, something moving and existing outside of ourselves, but not as a full individual person with thoughts, feelings, a life, a history and self-awareness like our own. Think of how you experience drivers in other cars, store clerks and other people you see and don't know. It's very easy for us to fall into a frame of mind where we aren't fully aware of them as living people exactly like our friends, loved ones, and ourselves. Only when we come to know a person does he or she become a du.

Unfortunately, translation gremlins come into play with Buber as well. His Ich und Du is translated I and Thou, which is actually the correct translation, using an archaic meaning of thou that we have almost forgotten. We think of Thou as being extremely formal, solemn and archaic, since most of us first encountered that word in the Bible. However, thou was actually the singular form of "you" long ago, and was the informal, personal, intimate way to address someone you knew well.

Nowadays, we have nearly lost the old meaning of thou, hearing only an echo of it in the affectionate fare thee well.

English has lost the distinction between German's du (you, singular, intimate, the person I am responding to and listening to) and Sie (you, plural and/or impersonal, a formal address to one or a whole group of "you people" who are usually acquaintances and associates rather than friends and family). We now use "you" for both. Is it any surprise that our business and political conversations become ever more informal, personal, casual and situational, and our friendships and relationships are shared in ever less intimate and private ways?)

Google Books Tracks "Trending" Pronouns Over the Years

Have I put you asleep yet? No? Congratulations.

All this was in the back of my mind when a friend pointed me to Google Books' ngrams study, tracking the uses of words in books over time. Sounds dry and dusty, doesn't it? It's not. You can tell, for example, when lots of people were looking for the mythical El Dorado (the city of gold) in the American West, and when the Atlantis Myth experienced a revival (hint: 1960s; no one was talking about Atlantis in the 50s).

The Google Books NGrams tool only examines frequency of words found in printed books. It can't tell us anything about how words were used in everyday speech, or on radio, TV, or in political dialog. It also cannot tell us anything about context or words with double meanings. (I quickly had to abandon a study of when "black" overtook "negro" as the everyday term for African-American, since "black" was used as a color as well as a term for race).

So, this tool has its limitations. Nevertheless, I couldn't resist feeding pronouns into it and looking for clues about the way we express our identities through pronouns at different times.

Frequency of Pronouns in Books from 1800-2000: She, Her

A study of "she" and "her" in books from 1800-2000. Immediately we're faced with the question: is "she" being used to refer to countries (patriotism), abstract ideas like freedom, women as fictional characters or women's issues? We can't tell.
A study of "she" and "her" in books from 1800-2000. Immediately we're faced with the question: is "she" being used to refer to countries (patriotism), abstract ideas like freedom, women as fictional characters or women's issues? We can't tell. | Source

Frequency of "He," "Him," His" in Books from 1800-2000

"He" outnumbers "his," although it does not outnumber "his" and "him" combined. In 1987, "she" finally began to outnumber the generic "him". Before that, "she" as a subject was less common than "him" as a passive object.
"He" outnumbers "his," although it does not outnumber "his" and "him" combined. In 1987, "she" finally began to outnumber the generic "him". Before that, "she" as a subject was less common than "him" as a passive object. | Source

The Rise and Fall of "I" and "My" in Books, 1800-2000

Despite the "me" generation, "I" was much more common in books prior to the 20th century. Then science taught that it was more factual to leave "I" out of it. Lately, scholars have declared that we're all speaking as "I" even if we don't admit it.
Despite the "me" generation, "I" was much more common in books prior to the 20th century. Then science taught that it was more factual to leave "I" out of it. Lately, scholars have declared that we're all speaking as "I" even if we don't admit it. | Source

Wild Fluctuations in "You" and "Your," 1800-2000

You is another interesting word, since it appears in both personal and public contexts. I could say "you" when I'm recognizing you as a "Thou," a person with legitimate needs and feelings. Or I could mean "You who are not US" and be taking sides.
You is another interesting word, since it appears in both personal and public contexts. I could say "you" when I'm recognizing you as a "Thou," a person with legitimate needs and feelings. Or I could mean "You who are not US" and be taking sides. | Source

Trends in "We" versus "You" versus "I", 1800-2000

We appears both in fiction, where I think it used to be more common to talk about "we" in families and groups, and in discussions of nation, company, faction, or group of like-minded people.
We appears both in fiction, where I think it used to be more common to talk about "we" in families and groups, and in discussions of nation, company, faction, or group of like-minded people. | Source

The Great Debate: "We" Versus "You" from 1980 to 2008

Google's books database goes through 2008. You can clearly see the polarization of the English-speaking world. We started talking about "you people" more often than "We" in 1984. Or did we? Was this when we started recognizing You as Thou?
Google's books database goes through 2008. You can clearly see the polarization of the English-speaking world. We started talking about "you people" more often than "We" in 1984. Or did we? Was this when we started recognizing You as Thou? | Source

Conclusions

The Google Books Ngrams tool is fascinating, but it only raises questions. It cannot answer how people are using words at a particular time.

For example, I suspect that the recent shift from "we" being more common to "you" being more common is a sign of polarization: when Americans are talking about what you are doing to the country, instead of "we the people," it's a sign of disunion and communications breakdown. But that's my guess. I could be wrong. Perhaps the upswing in "you" versus "we" is a sign that we are now being more considerate of other people (Buber's "Thou") as opposed to ourselves.

The only way to know is to study, in detail, lots and lots of cases where those words occur. I'm lazy, I'm not in academia right now, and I'm not going to sink myself into a multi-year study to research the issue. I simply want to point out how word frequency tools, far from being dry and dusty, meaningless stats, can actually tell us profound things about the world, or at least challenge us to think about our words in new ways.

You've probably been doing this yourself, and don't even know it. Have you ever noticed Twitter's "trending" tool, displaying the most common phrases being used around the world right now? Have you ever changed its geographic location to see what words are being used where? You are learning about how we see ourselves and our world through the words we use most.

Let's keep doing that. Let's keep using word tracking tools to understand each other better. And let's not forget these tools can only raise questions, not answer them.

Most of all, let's pay attention to our pronouns, since they are how we talk about, with, or against one another.

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Comments 3 comments

DNCalkins profile image

DNCalkins 4 years ago from The Cold-Blasted North

"Language tells you so much about cultural assumptions."

That was my favorite part. So true and rarely considered.

You raise some interesting questions and make some good points.

I think it's interesting to examine one's own correspondence (or Hub comments!) to see how often the personal or possessive pronouns get used naturally. It can be...revealing.

For me, looking at my own writing has certainly shown me that I like to talk about myself!


anonymous 4 years ago

I loved studying Old English - all the he, hit, heo (him, it, her) with a word for everything and interesting patterns. þu (singular, thu, from du, becomes you) and ge (plural, pron. ye, becomes ye, and you).

I wonder if the Hes, Hers and Hims are becoming 'they's as people become more gender sensitive? There's also be a relative increase in women-marketed books in the last half century, I guess *creates vague theory, concludes it answers everything and wanders off happily*


Flynn the Cat profile image

Flynn the Cat 4 years ago from Auckland, New Zealand

Darn it. The above was me.

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