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Calibrating recipiency through pronominal reference

This open-access publication by Josua Dahmen and Joe Blythe (2023), published in the new journal Interactional Linguistics, details the intricate use of pronouns for both address and reference by speakers of the in Jaru language of Western Australia (available here: http://doi.org/10.1075/il.22005.dah).


When speakers are in a conversation with multiple people, they often make reference to their interlocutors using personal pronouns. For instance, when referring to a co-participant in English, a speaker might use you to refer to the person or persons they are addressing, and use he, she or they to refer to someone present who is not being directly addressed at that time. They might then turn to address whoever they were previously referring to and use he, she or they to refer to the person(s) they had just previously been addressing. Pronouns are shifters. They move from person to person all the time. Switching between contrasting pronouns allows participants in multiparty conversation to recalibrate who they are referring to and who they are addressing.



English has a single pronoun we that is used to refer to the speaker plus one or more other people. Some languages have a number of distinct pronouns for “we”. In the Australian language Jaru, for instance, a speaker must not only use a different pronoun depending on whether the referents of “we” comprise two or more than two individuals, but also whether the referents of the pronoun exclude or include the addressee(s). This is known as the inclusive–exclusive distinction, or clusivity.


“we” in Jaru



In this study, we illustrate how the grammatical contrasts within pronoun inventories are used, often in conjunction with pointing and gaze, to indicate which co-participants are being addressed and which are being referred to. Clusivity sits at the intersection between address and reference. It affords speakers greater precision for indicating who they are talking to and who they are talking about. Address is constantly recalibrated through practices of reference, even when using default reference forms (such as the contrastive omission of a pronoun for referring to a non-addressed recipient in Jaru – arguably the most unmarked reference there is). Furthermore, speakers draw on more marked referential expressions in order to emphasise the attribution of participation roles more explicitly.

Our paper contributes to a growing body of research on the interplay between grammar and interaction by showing that the semantic properties of pronominal systems have important interactional functions which provide their speakers with nuanced mechanisms for enhancing details of the interlocutors’ roles within conversation.


Different types of pronoun systems provide speakers with specific tools that are useful for interactional purposes, and interactional studies of pronouns can provide insights into the functional properties of paradigmatic oppositions and their practical utility. Our study adds a multimodal dimension by showing how contrasting pronouns intersect with the visuo-corporal modality, both of which are used in managing participation roles. It shows that we can understand pronominal systems as dynamic interactional resources which can be used strategically. Because pronouns exhibit a great deal of linguistic diversity, we emphasise the enormous value in investigating conversations conducted in diverse languages with different pronoun systems, so that we can better understand how linguistic diversity intersects with social interaction.


The paper is accompanied by subtitled video clips of the analysed sequences of interaction, which can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.25949/17294816.


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