Pronoun envy

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In the New Yorker for February 10, 2014, a poem by Anne Carson:

It's nice to see Cal Watkins in a poem, since he contributed so much to the study of Indo-European poetics. And according to Ian Rae's article on Anne Carson in The Literary Encyclopedia, "Despite her success as a poet, Carson maintains that the study of ancient Greek culture is her main life's work."

The poem offers first-person memories of hockey games where Harvard divinity students

used their wings
to shoot pronouns around
on a big hockey rink

back of the Divinity School.

rushes onto my forehead
and an area of emotion up under
my tongue

when I
recall those games.

It's not clear whether this is purely poetic imagination, or the residue of a couple of years that Carson took off between matriculating at the University of Toronto in 1968 and graduating in 1974:

Initially […] Carson was frustrated with the compulsory courses required to complete an undergraduate arts degree – in particular the study of Milton – and she dropped out after first year. She returned to university a year later, but dropped out again after second year. Perhaps inspired by the pragmatic values of her ancestor Egerton Ryerson (the 19th-century Ontario educator for whom Ryerson Polytechnical University is named), Carson attended commercial art school for one year. However, she grew tired of designing cereal boxes and returned to the University of Toronto, where she completed her Bachelor's degree in 1974.   [Ian Rae, "Anne Carson", The Literary Encyclopedia]

I suspect that it's poetic imagination, because I'm having trouble placing a real-world hockey rink "back of the Divinity School". I was far away from Cambridge in 1971, but I don't think things changed all that much after 1969, when I was drafted, or before 1972, when I started grad school.  Then again, I never spent much time back of the Divinity School. And I never saw the pony either

standing quiet with one ear





  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    Carson seems to base her history on the account given by Anna Livia in her book Pronoun Envy, in which the phrase is credited to a letter to the Harvard Crimson from "Watkins et al." (really the entire linguistics department). You can read it on Google Books here. And you can read the letter in question in the Crimson archive (with various digitization errors) here. It appears that Watkins has been given the credit/blame for coining "pronoun envy" simply by virtue of being the most prominent signatory, though I gather the letter was very much a group effort.

    [(myl) Nothing about hockey in Anna Livia's book, though.]

  2. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

    I get that "poetess" is marked for femininity in a way that "poet" is not marked for either masculine or feminine. I'm not sure about the pronouns he and she or his or her, though. In other words, some masculine / feminine distinctions have markedness for feminine and unmarked for masculine, but does this apply to those pronouns?

  3. Bob Ladd said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 4:05 am

    @Jonathan Mayhew: In English the unmarkedness of masculine pronouns doesn't show up in many contexts, but it's very clear in the Romance languages, where for example 'they' is expressed by a fem. pl. pronoun if the group is feminine and by a masc. pl. pronoun if the group is masculine **or mixed**. The primary targets of the agitation dismissed as "pronoun envy" in the late 60s and early 70s were the residual uses of unmarked he in English – things like Everyone must write his own essay and The reader may draw his own conclusions. (The decidedly old-fashioned feel of those phrases now is some measure of how successful the linguistic agitation ultimately was.)

  4. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 9:19 am

    Yes, thanks. I know Spanish "ellas" is marked for gender where "ellos" is not. You could argue that the prevalence of singular "they" even before feminism shows that "he" really is marked as masculine. Morphologically is works very differently when you simply have two forms, like his or her, vs. situations where the feminine uses a suffix. You could say plural is marked and singular unmarked, with "book" and "books," right? In short, I see an overextension of the concept of markedness.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    @ Jonathan Mayhew. Sorry, I see now what you were getting at, but it's hard to make a purely morphological definition of markedness work. Even ellos vs. ellas is a case where "you simply have two forms" – one suffix or the other. It may be that Martin Haspelmath is right when he argues that "markedness" is not really a well-defined concept.

  6. exackerly said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

    It's easy to see why poet-poetess would be considered unmarked-marked, but what about actor-actress?

  7. Andrew Garrett said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    @Ben Zimmer: Indeed, given the order of the signatories (Cal is not listed first) and some of the style and details of the letter (not least the mention of Tunica), I would guess that Ives Goddard was the main author. He can no doubt clarify, or some of the other famous apparent co-authors of the term "pronoun envy" (Steve Anderson, Sandy Chung, Jay Jasanoff, Michael Silverstein).

  8. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 2:23 pm

    I'd say actor is unmarked. You could talk of your favorite actors being De Niro, Pacino, and Streep. I don't think that would work with a list of one's favorite actresses. Many women refer to themselves as actors now. Also, the word actor when it mean "one who takes an active role in something" is invariant for men and women.

  9. maidhc said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 6:22 am

    I feel kind of bad saying this, but it seems as though there are some dubious assumptions in this poem. Archaeopteryx grew feathers because of an oncoming Ice Age? The inhabitants of Mohenjo-daro spoke an Indo-European language?

    I like to give the benefit of the doubt to poets, but I can't help but remember the incident in "Sleeper" where she writes a heartfelt poem about a butterfly turning into a caterpillar.

  10. leoboiko said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    Gender and markedness in English reminds me of Hofstadter's short story, A Person Paper on Purity in Language:

    Most of the clamor, as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun "white" and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, straw white, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word "white," either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute "person" everywhere where "white" now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as "All whites are created equal." Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language. Think how ugly it would be to say "All persons are created equal," or "All whites and blacks are created equal." Besides, as any schoolwhitey can tell you, such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when "white" is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker race just as much as fairskins.

  11. Jtgw said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 8:50 am

    What poem? All I see is prose with random line-breaks.

  12. L said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 9:08 am

    I feel kind of bad saying this, but it seems as though there are some dubious assumptions in this poem. Archaeopteryx grew feathers because of an oncoming Ice Age? The inhabitants of Mohenjo-daro spoke an Indo-European language?

    1. Nowhere does she say that archaeopteryx grew feathers because of an oncoming ice age.
    2. If she's saying 5000 BC, she's not talking about Mohenjo-daro.
    3. Are you sure the inhabitants of Mohenjo-daro (or elsewhere in the Indus Valley) did not speak an Indo-European language, or an ancestor of it?

    But while we're at it: How can "capture" get stuck in a pony's ear? How can divinity students fly around? You can't play hockey with a pronoun; you use a puck! This poem is bonkers with all its dubious assumptions.

    I like to give the benefit of the doubt to poets

    I am having a hard time believing this.

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:17 am

    Ivy-league feminism proceeded in stages, and the internet sez that women were first admitted to Harvard Divinity School in 1955 but that Harvard (perhaps still sub nom. Radcliffe for this purpose) did not field a women's ice hockey team until 1978. Ms. [?] Livia pseudo-alliteratively links/contrasts "pronoun envy" with "phallogocentrism," which was definitely a vogue word among a certain social set by the time of my own Ivy League undergrad days in the mid '80's. The earliest instance I can find of that one in google books (once bad metadata is corrected for) seems to be from 1977, although it must have been used earlier in French.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:25 am

    It's also worth noting that it's unhelpful, even in the perhaps unrigorous context of a poem, to conflate the question of pronoun use etc. for human beings of unspecified/unknown sex (or mixed-sex groups) with the question of pronoun use (in any given theological tradition, since not every tradition must or should approach the issue the same way) for divine beings. The Goddard/Watkins/etc. letter does not purport to address the latter issue.

  15. DCBob said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    Lovely. Thank you.

  16. Chevalier said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 8:44 am

    Except, of course, that the Indo-European system isn't binary – Sanskrit has a neuter gender. Way back in the Indus Valley they probably spoke some form of PIE, and PIE has a third gender too.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:00 am

    The notion of marked/unmarked distinctions may or may not be coherent or well-defined (as Bob Ladd suggested above) but I'm not certain it requires binary alternatives (if that's Carson's gloss, perhaps she shouldn't quit her day job?). One could have three or four alternatives and still have one be the unmarked default and the others all marked to various degrees, couldn't one?

    Without getting as far afield as Sanskrit or PIE, English itself retains three genders in the specific context of third-person-singular pronouns. But one reason Anglophones keep having conflicts about "generic he" versus "singular they" versus various other workarounds is that for whatever motivation(s) we retain an extremely strong taboo against using neuter pronouns to refer to post-infancy human beings, even when we do not know their sex. Do any other three-grammatical-gender IE languages use neuter pronouns (or quasi-pronouns like demonstratives inflected for gender) to refer to human beings of unspecified sex?

  18. Jtgw said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    There is evidence that the three-gendered system (masculine, feminine, neuter) we find in most ancient IE languages was a late development in PIE, on the grounds that Anatolian shows a two-gendered system (animate/inanimate) and morphologically the feminine inflections appear to be later fusions of originally derivational suffixes.

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