This Is Your Brain On Pronouns

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As much as I detest such a glib appellation, we at Libretto are, without a doubt, word nerds. We get unreasonably excited about archaic personal insults and collective nouns for birds. I think this is both a prerequisite for and a consequence of our jobs. For many people, language is just a tool, but for those of us who get paid to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about commas, it constitutes an entire world to get lost in.

So allow me to nerd out for just a moment. Although they aren’t especially common nowadays (and I’m certainly not advocating that they make a comeback), the words “hither,” “thither,” “whither,” “hence,” “thence,” and “whence” entertain me enormously. They all have unnecessarily specific meanings and are often misused – two of my favorite qualities in words. They mean, respectively, “to here,” “to there,” “to where,” “from here,” “from there,” and “from where.” So when someone says, “Go back from whence you came,” the word “from” is unnecessary, since “whence” already encompasses that idea.

A simple chart like the one below illustrates how these words are related to each other – and to the more commonplace words (“here,” “there,” and “where”) that have replaced them.

Words go out of fashion all the time. Often this is because the things they reference cease to be relevant in our everyday lives; most of us use a car to get to the grocery store, and so the word “buggy” has lost a great deal of popularity. But just because the -ither/-ence words are almost entirely archaic doesn’t mean we no longer have a need to talk about the concepts they refer to. In practice, we use “here,” “there,” and “where” combined with “to” or “from” instead of the words in the top two rows of this chart.

Charts like these are a fun way of thinking about pronouns in particular, because they show both an exhaustive compilation of words in a given category and the different semantic “buckets” that we have a need for when speaking – regardless of whether there are actual words that fit in those buckets.

Consider this chart of pronouns:

Unlike the earlier chart, this one has a bunch of holes. But just as we use “from there” instead of “thence,” we often employ multiword phrases to plug the holes in this chart – for example, “in that way,” or “for some reason.” Even if there isn’t a word for something, that doesn’t mean we a) don’t or can’t understand that semantic concept, or b) can’t find a way to talk around it.

I often find it helpful to be reminded of the unconscious ingenuity our brains exhibit when it comes to language. Most of us hardly ever think of the fact that no word occupies the space in the chart corresponding to the “all” column and the “manner” row; still, we have no difficulty using the phrase “in every way.” Natural languages – English in particular – are infinitely adaptable, and when one word falls into disuse, another almost inevitably replaces it. It’s difficult to imagine a concept or idea that is impossible to express in words. In those moments when you have a clear mental picture of what you want to say but you’re agonizing over how to construct the sentence itself, that thought can be reassuring – and also terrifying.

File under Grammar, Language, Nerdy Stuff

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