15. November 2022
Axel Bohmann (Englisches Seminar, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)
Collocational profiles of gendered pronoun subjects across 200 years of American English
Gemeinsame Veranstaltung mit der Arbeitsgruppe Digital Philology am Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft (EVSL) der Universität Wien.
Abstract: Personal pronouns are indexical in multiple respects. As deictic expressions, they rely on context for their reference. However, beyond this referential indexicality, personal pronouns are also rich sites for social indexicality, as they often encode interpersonal relationships, status, or basic dimensions of social differentiation. This talk considers the social indexicality of the pronouns he and she in order to explore how gender – understood as a social construct – is linguistically encoded and reconstructed. To this purpose, all clauses with a pronominal subject he or she were extracted from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), a 475 million word corpus of written American English from the 19th and 20th century (Davies, 2010). The two pronouns are compared with respect to the overall frequency with which they occur as subjects as well as their distribution across combinations of voice, tense, and aspect. Moreover, the verbs that are strongly associated with either he or she are identified. Developments over time and in four different genres are considered.
Results show that masculine subjects are about five times more frequent than feminine ones until 1950. From this point on, a marked development towards parity can be observed; however, he in subject position remains about twice as frequent as she. Contrary to expectations, masculine pronouns show a higher percentage of passive voice subjects than feminine ones. The most strongly associated verbs for each pronoun show a clear pattern, with public (appoint) and cognitive (estimate) verbs favoring masculine subjects and verbs related to emotions (sob) and home life (sew) favoring feminine ones. However, there are important patterns of change over time in the extent to which classes of verbs are associated with subject he or she.
The study shows how linguistic analysis can provide insight into the cultural construction of gender and, specifically, how the incorporation of syntactic structure and verbal semantics adds value beyond simple frequency relationships (Baayen et al. 2017; Twenge et al. 2012; Michel et al. 2011). Despite its focus on recent history, the results are relevant for current debates around pronoun use (Baron 2020).