What Pronouns Say About the Way We Think
"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."
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
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
Frequency of "He," "Him," His" in Books from 1800-2000
The Rise and Fall of "I" and "My" in Books, 1800-2000
Wild Fluctuations in "You" and "Your," 1800-2000
Trends in "We" versus "You" versus "I", 1800-2000
The Great Debate: "We" Versus "You" from 1980 to 2008
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.