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(Replying to Alex Fink - see the longer quote below for contexts)

>I think that in most folks' English its broadening from that context isn't
>complete, i.e. there are still contexts that "they" hasn't insinuated itself
>into: e.g. introducing a man by saying "this is Fred, _they're_ an old
>friend of mine" probably isn't really licit for most.  I also have the
>feeling that a certain amount of the impetus for the extension is
>intentional, on the part of those who find it inapt that English has no
>gender-neutral 3s personal pronoun; and acts of volitional design are harder
>to make a diachronic theory of.

I suspect a similar thing could be possible with other types of impetuses
too; e. g. a polite/honorific pronoun is introduced, and happens to be
gender-neutral unlike the other pronouns (or vice versa), and then the
politeness distinction gets blurred... 

>How exactly is the epicene used?  Could every use of the masculine or
>feminine be grammatically replaced by it?  Or conversely?

It's supposed to be somewhat tricky. The language has five genders, all of
which can be applied to inanimate nouns (with historical distribution). With
animates, only three are used (masculine, feminine, epicene); masculine is
still less marked than feminine, for masculine and epicene are often the
same lexeme (differentiated only in agreement), but feminine is always a
different word (often a derivate from the m./ep.) which always refers to
females (while the m./ep. lexeme with epicene agreement is gender-neutral by
default).

Epicene is more marked than masculine at least when referring to humans.
With animals, it can be an equivalent of the English _it_ (i. e. can be
applied to animals whose sex is actually known to the speaker); with humans,
it strongly implies that the referent's sex is indeed unknown to the
speaker, and if that's not true, it conveys despise or similar connotations.
The latter use of epicene is possible with inherently masculine lexemes
('father', 'husband') but not with feminines. Imagine a future English using
expressions like "That one, forget what sex you said they were" :)

The historical scenario behind that system wasn't sketched yet (and may be
never designed as such), but there are some pointers to how it emerged. I
think it resulted from a simplification of a much more complex system (with
special agreement classes for "female relatives older than ego" & like). The
restructuring must have affected number formation, too, which kinda
resonates with the scenario behind singular _they_: while having 5 genders,
the language has less than 5x2 agreement classes (probably just 6), and e.
g. one factor blocking zero-conversion of masculines/epicenes to feminines
by simply switching the agreement is that such switching is actually the
default way to convey epicene plural.

-- Basilius

---------

On Tue, 12 Jul 2011 12:21:59 -0400, Alex Fink wrote:

>On Thu, 7 Jul 2011 09:45:46 -0400, Basilius wrote:
>
>>On Tue, 5 Jul 2011 13:56:52 -0400, Alex Fink wrote:
>>
>>>If you weren't thinking of this as a fundamental feature of the system, but
>>>that "we-amb" was just explicitly unmarked for containing you, my money
>>>would still be on no ANADEW.  Natlangs just seem never to do that, have an
>>>explicitly unmarked member of an opposition where all the possible values
>>>are marked as well (e.g. male / female / sex-unmarked human pronouns).  I'd
>>>suppose there are good Gricean reasons for this while the oppositions are
>>>developing and becoming obligatory.
>>
>>Wouldn't the singular _they_ (as opposed to _he_ and _she_) in current
>>English usage be a valid natlang precedent?
>
>Hm, it well might.  Deserves being looked closer at, anyhow.
>
>My understanding is that "they" expanded from an original use where a human
>referent was of nonspecific or indefinite sex  -- and was restricted to
>these cases, and so formed a genuine three-member paradigm of some sort for
>singular human pronouns, with "they" being used in just those cases where
>the referent was neither definitely male or definitely female.
>I think that in most folks' English its broadening from that context isn't
>complete, i.e. there are still contexts that "they" hasn't insinuated itself
>into: e.g. introducing a man by saying "this is Fred, _they're_ an old
>friend of mine" probably isn't really licit for most.  I also have the
>feeling that a certain amount of the impetus for the extension is
>intentional, on the part of those who find it inapt that English has no
>gender-neutral 3s personal pronoun; and acts of volitional design are harder
>to make a diachronic theory of.
>
>I guess we should come back in five hundred years or so and see how the
>situation has sorted itself out ;)
>
>>Your statement feels like referring to something very real, and - alas - I
>>have a sketched conlang that is supposed to be naturalistic, and it does
>>exactly that: masculine :: feminine :: epicene, in pronouns and agreement.
>>Every excuse helping to save the project will be used ;)
>
>How exactly is the epicene used?  Could every use of the masculine or
>feminine be grammatically replaced by it?  Or conversely?
>
>Alex