Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The great pronoun dilemma

Something I've noticed about native Spanish speakers is that many of them tend to confuse pronouns when learning English. For example, they'll say "she" when they mean "he" or replace "their" with "they." My theory is that this has something to do with the fact that Spanish verbs are more inflected than English ones and therefore don't always require pronouns to clarify who's doing what. "Tengo" means "I have"; "tuvimos" means "we had." Maybe my students mix up their pronouns because they're not used to having to focus on them. This difference influences English speakers' Spanish as well: A Chilean once told me she'd noticed that we gringos, recurring to the rules of our own pronoun-peppered language, have the tendency to use the possible but repetitive "yo tengo" and "nosotros tuvimos."

As it turns out, I have pronoun troubles in English too. Of these little words, the one that complicates my life most is "we."

While talking to my mom on Skype last night, I mentioned that we here in Chile had gone off daylight saving time over the weekend. My use of "we" got me thinking about a time when I'd chosen a different pronoun: when I was home in Minnesota visiting from Ecuador and asked her, "Where do you keep the pots now?"

You. Not we. Through a simple inquiry about kitchenware, I had implied that I was no longer a full member of the household.

Which is true, in a sense. Ever since I went off to college, I've only spent a handful of weeks per year at home. However, for me, the phrase "at home" has never ceased to mean my family's house in Minneapolis. When I'm in the States, I don't talk about going "home" to Chile. Perhaps I would if I had a family here or had definite plans to stay here permanently. But I don't, at least not for now.

Still, the pronoun dilemma remains. If a foot of snow falls on Minneapolis while I'm frying under Santiago's summer sun, did we just have a blizzard or did they? Do we start partying late at night here in Santiago, or do they?

I have to admit that using "we" to refer to Santiaguinos makes me feel kinda warm and fuzzy. Like using "we" to refer to myself and a significant other. To me, "we" means that even though I'm far from home -- and from most of the people who know me best -- I belong to a community and to my surroundings. That I'm not a visitor in this city but a resident in it. A member rather than an observer.

Of course, there are certain contexts in which I would never presume to use "we." For example, "We suffered under Pinochet." And not just because I wasn't here during his regime. I don't know how Chileans who lived in Chile during the dictatorship would react to Chileans who didn't -- either because they were living abroad or hadn't been born yet -- saying the same thing, but I have the feeling they would find it more acceptable than if a foreigner had said it. There are certain aspects of this country that will be forever off-limits to me, certain things I will never be able to fully understand. I first encountered Chile by stepping off a plane when I was 20, not by growing up immersed in its history, culture or reality. For me, Chile is like a second language: I started learning too late to never have an accent.

There are other cases, though, in which I feel I have every right to use "we." I've lived in Santiago for almost two and a half years and have many of the same experiences as people who were born and raised here. We complain about the Transantiago bus system. We huddle around gas-fueled heaters in the winter.

Sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable using "we" in this way, as if someone were going to call me out as an impostor. It's a feeling I'm trying to move past, though. Both because my experiences in Santiago completely justify the "we" and because, as certain things about Minnesota slip further into the realm of "they," "we" needs to absorb things about Chile to replace them. Because living in a world of pure "they"s would be downright depressing.


lydia said...

really interesting points.

the only part i kind of questioned was actually your example going back home. i think, regardless of where you identify most with, if your mom moved the pots to a new place it makes sense to say "You, where do you keep the pots now." "We" would also make sense but i dont think your pronoun choice actually matters too much in this sentence since your mom, apparently the person in control of the pots and their placement, moved them without consent of the entire household. she or they did the action. however, if the pots were in the same place as always and you forgot and said "where do you keep the pots now" that, in my mind, is excluding yourself from the household. I dunno that I firmly believe that or just am kind of pondering it, what do you think? does it matter in the language that she did the action?

Anyway. I teach koreans too and they switch the he/she just as much. I no little about their language and if the same thing affects their pronoun use but I have been wondering recently if maybe all esl speakers struggle with that, or why some do/don't master it easily

Clare said...

I call so many places home at this point. I have been known to say, it is nice being home but I will be happy when I get home too.

Mamacita Chilena said...

Very good post Leigh, the whole thing was an interesting read and got me thinking.

I tend to use we still referring to cultural things that gringos do because that's the society I'll always be a part of no matter where I live. I tried to be a part of the Chilean society and while I sort of am now, I feel like I'm still on the outskirts and always will be. So maybe I'll never use we in regards to Chileans.

Another thing in the same vein...have you noticed that an employee in a U.S. store, if you were looking for apples and they had none, might say, "No, sorry, we're all out," but most of the times I've noticed that a Chilean in that case will specifically says, "No, sorry, I'm all out." as if they were taking ownership of the store.

Leigh said...

Lydia: I see your point about the question. The thing is that I immediately felt bad after I asked my mom that, whether or not she noticed. So I guess at the time, I at least felt that I'd implied I was no longer on the "inside."

It would be interesting to give English classes to native speakers of a bunch of different languages and see which ones had the most/least trouble with pronouns (or anything, for that matter).

Clare: Haha. That's a good philosophy. They're all home!

Kyle: Yeah, I have noticed that about employees at stores. Weird.