Monday, December 29, 2008

Schoolhouse Rock: Pronouns

Last week I got the DVD compilation of Schoolhouse Rock from Netflix. This dates me, but I remember really well watching TV as a kid and hoping and hoping that one of those songs would come on, all the while never quite being able to track when they would appear. So having the DVD at home has exposed me to some songs I was familiar with, and also some that I've never heard before. Blast from the past for me, and my kids love it. Niall is constantly coming out with snippets of songs and information now. It's great fun.

My favorite song of the moment is the pronoun song. For those who may remember, it's entitled "Rufus Xavier Sarsparilla" and the most memorable line in it for me is "'cause saying all those nouns over and over can really wear you down."

Needless to say, that got me thinking. In fantasy and science fiction there are a lot of tough names and concepts, and sometimes when I read I feel people are overusing nouns when I would prefer a pronoun. The trick of course is to have the pronoun link back properly to the noun so the reader can track it. ("It"=a pronoun linked back to "the pronoun" :) ) My son is working on tracking pronouns in his reading right now.

I would encourage people to look through their prose and track their hierarchy of reference. This just means how you refer to something when you introduce it the first time, refer back to it the second time, then the third time, etc. The most flexible element in this hierarchy is the straight pronoun, i.e. he/him/her/it etc. but there are also phrases using demonstrative pronouns like "this man" and "that alien" and of course there are definite noun phrases like "the alien" etc. Generally the complexity of the phrase undergoes a successive decline across the number of references, except when there is a possible confusion and you need to reestablish the reference in contrast to that.

This isn't the only thing that pronouns make me think of.

Since I have a language design workshop coming up in February, I'm going to start doing a few language design topics to get people thinking, and pronouns are wonderful things to play with. The English pronoun system says a lot about our concepts of individuality, gender, and relative position, for example. Compare our use of the word "I" with the Japanese pronouns for "I": we've got one pronoun and we use it all the time, while Japanese has more than six different ways of saying "I" but much of the time people don't use any of them at all. They just drop the subject of the verb completely and leave the listener to infer the information. The pronouns themselves vary depending on whether the speaker is a male or a female and how formal the situation is - demonstrating the importance of gender and formality in Japanese society.

So what do you do with pronouns if you've got a language of your own? Well, think about the social structure of the place and try to determine what identity parameters are important. Do your people think of themselves as individuals? Do they divide themselves primarily by gender, by some other criterion, or both? Do they consider the formality of the situation to be relevant in how they refer to themselves or others? Or are there other factors involved? For example, would they refer to themselves in one way in the presence of a member of an oppressor race, but in another when alone with their own kind?

The tiny little pronoun can do an enormous job in showing (not telling!) how the social structure of your world works.