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Looking for the Impersonal Core -- Impersonal Pronouns across Germanic languages

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - IPG_CORE (Looking for the Impersonal Core -- Impersonal Pronouns across Germanic languages)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

The overarching theoretical question that guided IPG_CORE was "Can the behaviour of impersonal pronouns across languages be traced back to a single impersonal core meaning?" This question was motivated by the observation that even impersonal pronouns of languages that belong to the same language family seem to differ in their grammatical behavior. A case in point are Norwegian, Swedish, and German, which all share the impersonal pronoun 'man'. In general, three types of uses have been described for impersonal pronouns: (i) a generic use with a meaning close to 'people in general', (ii) an existential use with a meaning close to 'someone', and (iii) a referential use with a meaning close to 'I'/'we'. For Norwegian, Swedish, and German 'man', the available uses have been reported to differ: German 'man' has a generic and an existential use. Swedish 'man' has all three uses. For Norwegian 'man', the empirical picture is less clear: while the generic use is clearly available, the data reported on the existential use is ambiguous, and the referential use has not been discussed, so far. So, aside from the empirical gaps in connection with Norwegian 'man', the differences in the available uses across the three languages make 'man' an ideal object of study in order to come closer to an answer to the overarching theoretical question.

The main objective of IPG_CORE was to provide empirical data and theoretical results on the grammatical behavior of German, Norwegian, and Swedish 'man' in order to improve our understanding of the grammar of impersonal pronouns. Due to the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and early results of the project, the strategy to meet this objective was adapted in the course of the project. Specifically, the theoretical investigation of the possible uses of 'man' took precedence over the collection of empirical data, and the empirical investigations targeted the behavior of 'man' in main clauses only.

This adapted strategy resulted in the following insights:
(i) German, Norwegian, and Swedish only share the generic use in all of their varieties. While German and Swedish 'man' have a generic and existential use, the existential use is only available in written Norwegian (Bokmål), spoken Norwegian only allows for the generic use.
(ii) The existential use (of 'man') differs in its grammatical behavior from expressions with an intuitively similar existential meaning, but it shares its exceptional existential meaning with implicit agents of passives (i.e. the agents of the actions reported in passive sentences that are not stated explicitly).
(iii) The generic use (of 'man') differs from other generically interpreted nominal expressions in that it has to be licensed by accompanying linguistic material, which results in simple sentences being ill-formed (e.g. ??"Man niest" in German or ??"One sneezes" in English are not well-formed statements about people in general).
(iv) The empirical and theoretical results suggest that impersonal pronouns with more than one use are fully ambiguous (i.e. the uses do not have a shared underlying meaning). Thus, given the current state of evidence and available formal analyses, it is highly implausible that a core meaning covering all uses of 'man' in German, Norwegian, and Swedish exists.

IPG_CORE is at its core basic linguistic research. However, impersonal 'man' as a pronoun derived from the Germanic word for male individuals (Engl. 'man') is of interest in connection with gender-sensitive language. Understanding the range of interpretations available may inform a discussion of how 'man' could be avoided/substituted, should the use of 'man' be generally gender-imbalanced.
Work Packages 1 and 2 focused on gathering new data on German, Norwegian, and Swedish 'man'. With the help of four research assistants (Norwegian and Swedish native speakers), I conducted two parallel corpus studies that investigated the possible interpretations of 'man' in written Norwegian and Swedish. These results were supplemented by an informal survey on spoken Norwegian and Swedish. Subsequently, three parallel online questionnaire studies on spoken German, Norwegian, and Swedish were conducted with two parts each: part one investigated the possible uses of 'man' in main clauses and collected more systematic data than the informal survey. Part two targeted the grammatical behavior of existentially used 'man' and compared it to expressions with intuitively similar meaning (i.e. counterparts of 'someone'). With the help of two native speaker research assistants, the participants could be shown the same study material in all three languages. In addition, I conducted a pilot study on the interaction of existentially used German 'man' with possessive pronouns and native speaker interviews eliciting judgments on Swedish 'man'.

The focus of Work package 3 was on theoretical analysis. First, a new formal analysis for the existential use of 'man' was worked out (in collaboration with Jan Köpping, Bochum). In addition, evidence was collected that existentially used 'man' and implicit agents of passives (i.e. the agents of the actions reported in passive sentences that are not named explicitly) contribute the same exceptional meaning (at least in German), and so-called "Quantificational Variability Effects" arising with both types of expressions were analyzed. Regarding the generic use, I investigated the known restriction that 'man' is degraded in simple sentences and linked it to insights on so-called "habitual sentences". Lastly, I started to explore the use of German 'man' in the complements of verbs of saying.

Most of the results of the project were presented at European and transatlantic venues on 15 occasions. Furthermore, I wrote three proceedings papers for international conferences (North East Linguistic Society (USA), Sinn und Bedeutung (Germany), West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics (USA)) and two manuscripts that were submitted to international journals. In addition to these papers, I wrote a reply to correct a false claim about impersonally used personal pronouns in German, which was accepted for publication at Linguistic Inquiry.
IPG_CORE was the first project to gather parallel data on the grammatical behavior of German, Norwegian, and Swedish 'man' using different empirical methods: corpus studies, questionnaire studies, and native speaker interviews. The questionnaire studies were, furthermore, the first systematic studies on the grammatical behavior of the existential use of impersonal pronouns. That data gathered settled the question which uses are available for Norwegian 'man' and provided empirical support for the theoretical results of the action.

On the theoretical side, IPG_CORE resulted in a new, more adequate formal account capturing the exceptional semantics of the existential use of 'man'. In related work, I proposed a new account of "Quantificational Variability Effects'' observable with both implicit agents of passives and existentially used 'man'. The theoretical work on the generic use of 'man' resulted in a new account for a known restriction on this use in simple sentences. Lastly, exploratory work on the use of German 'man' in the complements of verbs of saying opened up a new line of inquiry for German 'man' providing the groundwork for a systematic investigation of impersonal pronouns in speech and attitude reports.
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