Generational Differences in Set-Definitional
Pronoun Reference Among the Winodanugaian
In 1993, the eminent linguist Claude Searsplainpockets wrote of a little-studied language spoken by a handful of islanders that “in Winodanugaian pronoun reference is forever”. As the result of an unusual history, speakers of Winodanugaian almost all have perfect pitch and eidetic memories. As Searsplainpockets explained, personal pronouns in Winodanugaian all have the phonological shape /mV/, but the vowel in question can “have six different values for frontness, thirteen values for height, three degrees of rounding and four length distinctions. There are seven tone levels and vowels may have as many as six tonemes associated with each” (Searsplainpockets 1993).
Searsplainpockets goes on to give this example of pronoun acquisition:
A: Tonight PRO3,792 will be coming to visit.
B: Who is PRO3,792?
A: Juan, Maria, and all of their children but Pedro.
I am a native speaker of Winodanugaian, and I was nine years old when Claude visited our island all those years ago. As a direct result of his visit, I became interested in linguistics, and eventually became a linguist myself.
After being away for almost a decade, I returned home and heard my youngest brother ask my mother about who was coming over for dinner. To my surprise, she replied: “PRO3,792”. I laughed at the coincidence, and waited eagerly for the arrival of Juan, Maria, and their children.
During dinner, my brother asked my mother a question that made my linguist-ears perk up: “You said that PRO3,792 were coming for dinner. Where’s Rodion?” After a little back an forth, it became clear that to my mother (and my father, I later confirmed), PRO3,792 referred to Juan, Maria, and the five children other than Pedro they had in 1993, when Claude collected the snippet of data above. To my youngest brother (and several of my younger siblings, all under age 10), it referred to the set defined by the phrase “Juan, Maria, and all of their children but Pedro”, including the three other children born to the couple since 1993.
Similar splits occur in similar “set-definition” groups, like PRO10,584, which referred to “the Council of Elders”, the composition of which had remained the same from 1962 until 2010, when Elder Agrafena retired from the council, and was replaced by Elder Aglaya. Many of the older generation expressed their disappointment that the younger generation was not taking notice of important cultural events on the island, as evidenced by their continued use of PRO10,584 to refer to the Council of Elders. I spoke to several politically active teens on the island, and they assured my that they were quite aware of the change in leadership, but that PRO10,584 defined a group whose membership could change, not a fixed list of individuals.
In daily life, this is often a distinction without a difference. Many small groups are indeed identified with their pronouns via an exhaustive enumeration. In the case of ad hoc groups of less than five, the enumeration is typically less work than a group definition. But as we have seen, in rare cases, the denotation of such pronouns becomes ambiguous, and may even have real world, political consequences.
I’m not sure what to make of this situation, but it is clear that more research is necessary to unravel the intricacies of this system. Said research will require more and abundant funding.
At Home, Somewhere in the Pacific