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Q&A

English dialects and he/she versus it

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In normed Finnish language hän (he/she) refers to people, while se (it) refers to non-people. However, in spoken language, at least in many dialects, se is used also for people. (Both hän and se are still used, but it is not really relevant here how.)

With English I have been taught that it refers to non-people, while she/he refers to people. (I am ignoring the issue of gender-neutral pronouns here to focus on the central question.) However, what I have taught is various prestige dialects of English.

I guess there are a bunch of English dialects and spoken varieties with different uses of it and he/she(/etc.), but are there some major or representative examples I could look at to get a sense of the variety in this? Or maybe some general trends that hold for many dialects?

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2 answers

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The direct parallel of the example from Finnish does not exist in English dialects know to me. Which does not stand for much, I'm not even a native speaker.

There are some basic uses of "it" which do refer to a person and which are available rather uniformly across dialects of English.

  1. Person, often an unborn or newborn child, (or animal) whose (binary) sex is unknown or disregarded. Example: "Who was it that told you that?"

  2. Person whose gender is non-binary. (The person may have opted into the pronoun.)

  3. Jocular or derogatory use. (The sentence will often contain additional depersonalizing lexical items, creating a tension between the subject being clearly a person, but the speaker treating them as a non-person. Such usage would be studied under pragmatics, not semantics, it doesn't constitute an independent meaning of the word "it".)

  4. Ante-referential use. "John is a postman but he hates to be it." (In such a sentence, we could perhaps argue whether "it" refers to a "postman" or to John's "postmanship", which could further be analyzed as a countable person and an uncountable abstraction, respectively.)

With enough context twisting, almost every word can be made to refer to almost anything, and "it" is an especially flexible referent due to its native use to refer to any abstractions - abstractions are included in non-persons.

Many usages of "it" may look superficially like they are referring to a person, but aren't. "It is she who carries my baby." Here, "it" is a dummy pronoun which is a part of a set phrase "it is/was ... who/that ...". The phrase is used for emphasis. The fact that the "it" is used as a dummy pronoun can sometimes be confirmed once the phrase is combined with other grammatical persons or numbers than 3rd person singular: "It was ourselves who started this."

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Another common variant (4 comments)
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He/she may be used to refer to an object. The accepted practice in English is for boats and ships to be considered female; this is unusual enough to be remarked upon by non-sailors.

All other uses that I am aware of are casual anthropomorphisms rather than formal. A vehicle is often referred to as female by the owner or a mechanic. A favorite tool or instrument may be gendered. In all of these cases, the gendering is specific to that object, not the entire class, and indicates emotional involvement. It is often inconsistently applied, but I am not aware of an object which is considered to switch genders, only to gain or lose a specific gender in the course of conversation.

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