A video drifted into my feed yesterday by someone I’d never heard of before and it looked interesting so I listened to it while I was getting ready to go out. The chap who made the video is a linguist and he decided to weigh in on the controversial topic of pronouns and how they are being used, mainly in English, mainly by younger people in relatively affluent communities. If you don’t know why pronouns are controversial, well, consider yourself lucky, but basically whether we refer to people as he or she or something else, and under what circumstances is currently occupying a lot of social media and traditional media output. Frankly I’m baffled, but middle-aged people being baffled by stuff the youngs are obsessed with isn’t exactly news, is it? 🤷🏼
Anyway, as weird as it is in English, it’s even weirder in languages like portuguese where gender-specific pronouns are ascribed not only to people but to pens, apples, books and the concept of liberty*.
I’ve written a few posts about pronoun shifts a while ago um… Now where did I leave those? I started with this one, and a few people said the pun on the word “neuter” was problematic but that doesn’t seem to have stopped me repeating the crime a few weeks later when I really expanded on the subject here and then for a little reprise here.
Anyway if that kind of thing is something that interests you, I can recommend the whole video: it’s full of thought-provoking stuff. On the other hand, if you’re not, no worries because I only wanted to focus on a few seconds in the middle anyway. So, let me at least tell you why I decided to contradict him despite the fact that he is an expert and I am not.
At around 8 minutes and 25-ish seconds, he is discussing instances of relatively new pronouns that have been drafted into languages, relatively late in their development and he says “Portuguese has the impersonal ‘a gente'”. Except he says it in a Brazilian accent so it’s more like “a Genchee”.
Why, Brazilians? Why?
Gente is a feminine, singular noun that refers to a group of people but it’s true that portuguese speakers do use “a gente” as a stand-in for a group of people in place of “we”. It makes the grammar simpler because you don’t have to wrap your tongue around the nós form of the verb, you can just conjugate it in the third person singular – “a gente fala…” in place of “nós falamos”. It sounds a bit odd to English speakers but it works. As far as I can tell, it’s much more common in Brazil but it does exist in Portugal too. Of course it’s very informal, but I think it’s wrong to say it’s a pronoun. Even though it’s playing a similar role in the sentence – filling in in place of what could be a list of names, you could say the same about other collective nouns. Take “The family” as in “The family are getting together for Christmas” which could easily have been “We are getting together for Christmas”. Or what about “guys” in situations like “It’s just the guys, together again” or “hello guys, and welcome to another video”. Definitely not pronouns, right, but they are really fulfilling the same role as “a gente”.
Using nouns as stand-ins for people happens in formal speech too. You will almost certainly have heard people addressing each other as “o senhor” or “a senhora” or even “o doutor” Again, these are behaving in a fairly pronoun-like way, but they’re both nouns. You’re just talking to the person in the third person. “How is the gentleman?” instead of “How are you?” It’s the same kind of thing.
I felt like I was being a but of a reply guy, challenging someone in their academic discipline. Luckily we are both dudes, so I can’t be accused of mansplaining but even so, it’s a bit… Well, let’s say “hubristic”.
The Results Are In, You Bastards
So, I made a reddit poll to ask native speakers on r/português to tell me if I’m right in my thinking. To my huge annoyance, judging by the early results, ‘yes, it’s a pronoun” seems to be winning over “no, it’s just a noun”. It’s a pretty close result in Portugal but overwhelming in Brazil.
In my defence, democracy is overrated. But if that brilliant argument doesn’t convince you, the explanation someone gave is that although “gente” is a noun, “a gente” os technically known as “uma locução pronomial” with “the same value as the personal pronoun ‘nós'” só it’s not a pronoun per se, but it works like one. Meh, I can live with that form of words, I think.
Finally, a European speaker said he was taught never to use it as a pronoun because it was “extremamente errado” and whenever he used it his grandpa would say “A gente? Agente é da polícia!”
*Respectively: lady, lady, gentleman, lady, if you’re keeping score.