The Danish pronoun ‘man’ used as ‘I’ in conversation

In English, you is both a definite and an indefinite pronoun. This means that speakers can use the same form to refer to a specific person and to refer to someone unspecific, someone in general. In Danish, the pronoun man is used to refer to someone in general, just like the English indefinite you, and the word’s primary meaning, listed in dictionaries and grammars, is this generic function. However, there are instances in the language where man occurs as an indefinite pronoun with self-reference. These instances are only briefly mentioned in the literature and are not described in detail at all.

This blog post is based on a presentation and an article from the 17th MUDS – Møderne om Udforskningen af Dansk Sprog (meetings on the exploration of the Danish language). You can read the full paper here (in Danish).

Man as an indefinite pronoun

The Danish Dictionary

In the Danish Dictionary, the pronoun man is defined as referring to an unspecified person as being a representative of a group or of people in general, and it can be translated into the English you or one. According to Christensen and Christensen’s Danish grammar, man is an indefinite pronoun that replaces nouns and furthermore has an unspecified reference, unlike a specific noun or a personal pronoun. In the comprehensive grammar by Hansen and Heltoft,  it is claimed that man means people in general, and furthermore that its normal and generic usage has no deixis. But The Danish Dictionary briefly describes an ambiguity as a sub-meaning of the pronoun:

(1.a) [man] is used to refer to the speaker her/himself, often to make the statement more general or to underplay his/her own role.

This argues for man also functioning as a personal pronoun in specific circumstances. Jensen and Gregersen (2016:439) acknowledge this usage:

[Man] is specialized and unambiguous as a generic pronoun except that in some (very specialized) cases it may be used to refer to the first person singular (or even the second person, but that is extremely rare)…

But they do not further explain. What could these ‘very specialized’ cases be?

When using pronouns in conversation, a speaker is basically referring to someone or something, just as they would when writing. But when referring to persons in conversation there are some preferences that speakers usually observe (Sacks and Schegloff 1979). There is a preference for minimization, which means that when a speaker is referring to someone, it should be done with a single reference form. Furthermore, there is a preference for recognitionals, which means that if possible, the speaker should use a reference form that the recipient recognizes. This means that there is preference for using recognizable reference forms instead of more vague and non-recognitional ones as for example someone. The way you design your reference in order to ensure that the recipient understands or recognizes it can say a lot about the relationship between the speakers. In conversation, this is known as recipient design (Sacks et al. 1974).

Man used when dealing with problematicity

The phenomenon being investigated in this blog post is the particular practice where a speaker is using the indefinite man when in fact referring to him/herself. I will show through a single-case analysis from the tradition of Conversation Analysis, that man can be used in conversation when dealing with problematicity in an attempt to create distance from the utterance by not self-referring, but referring to someone in general instead.

In the example (1) below, the two speakers Preben (PRE) and Thomas (THO) are talking about an appointment they made (probably about being recorded). Thomas was told about the potential appointment late in the process because he was sick. He explains that the sickness had something to do with his stomach, and in line he 35 uses the pronoun man (marked with an arrow in the transcription).

29   THO: så blev jeg så desværre syg jo så→
          then I became sadly sick jo so
30        (1.4)
31   PRE: ja hva var det↗
          yes what was that
32        (0.2)
33   THO: det med maven↘
          it(’s) with the stomach
34        (0.4)
35 → THO: de:t kommer engang imellem hvor man li::ge →
          it comes once in a while where man just
36        (0.4)
37   THO: får en tur med maven jo↘
          gets a round with the stomach jo
38        (0.5)
39   PRE: nå::↘
40        (0.2)
41   PRE: en druktur eller hva[h]
          a night out drinking or what
42   THO:                     [n]e::j→
43   PRE: h [ha ha         ]↘
          h ha ha
44   THO:   [ikk denne gang] nej desværre ikk denne gang↘
             not this time no sadly not this time
45        (0.8)
46   PRE: nå: okay↘
          oh okay

In line 29, Thomas is producing an utterance containing a reason why he had heard about the appointment this late. He was sick at the time, and by using the particle jo he shows that Preben is supposed to know this. After a longer pause, Preben confirms this information with his ja ’yes’ in the beginning of the utterance, and then he asks a question about what Thomas’s sickness was about in line 31. After a short pause, Thomas answers this question and gives the reason for the sickness: det med maven ’it(‘s) with the stomach’. This utterance appears rather vague, only mentioning that it had something to do with the stomach without specifying in further. This vague utterance and the pauses in line 30 and 32 could indicate the problematicity of talking about a delicate and sensitive topic such as sickness. Line 33 is a potentially finished utterance, but Thomas expands the utterance after a pause, probably because of the lack of response. The first part of the expansion in line 35, ‘it comes once in a while’, could belong to the utterance in line 33 going into detail about the frequency of the sickness. This part and line 33 are clearly referring to Thomas’s situation and could together constitute a potentially finished utterance. The second part of the utterance in line 35 is the point at which it becomes clear that Thomas is making a general statement with the use of man. After the man, Thomas uses an extended and stressed lige ‘just’, followed by a pause, which seems to reduce the problematicity of Thomas frequently having these stomach troubles. Furthermore, this seems to underline the on-going problematicity of talking about sickness. Thomas finishes his utterance in line 37 and this line together with line 35 imply a casual attitude towards the sickness. This is furthermore supported by the particle jo ending the utterance; here, the particle again indicates that Preben should be familiar with the subject, this time these ‘rounds with the stomach. After a longer break, Preben responds with in line 39 and afterwards in line 41, he comes with his understanding of Thomas’ utterance asking if the sickness was caused by a night out drinking. Thomas rejects Preben’s understanding in line 42 and then he expands with the utterance in line 44 saying that this was sadly not the reason this time. After a longer pause Preben responds and ends the sequence. Afterwards, Thomas explains that the sickness had something to do with bacteria on the bowels.

In line 35, Thomas uses the pronoun man, which creates this generalizing utterance about having trouble with the stomach. In the beginning, he is clearly talking about his own situation, and then he adds the utterance with man, suddenly creating distance. As defined earlier, man refers to someone in general, and with this utterance Thomas is now stating that people in general have these problems. By using a general statement, he creates distance by using an indefinite pronoun instead of a personal one. This seems to reduce the problematicity of these stomach troubles by saying that everyone has them and maybe indicating that there is no need to worry. If he had used I instead, a prediction could be that Thomas’ stomach troubles would appear quite serious. Furthermore Preben’s candidate understanding in the following line would no longer be appropriate. The fact that Preben’s actual candidate understanding in line 41 is proposed and afterwards rejected indicates that these troubles are not happening to everyone. Preben is clearly not having the same kind of trouble with the stomach as Thomas is having. This underlines the fact that, in this case, an indefinite pronoun such as man is replaceable with a personal pronoun, such as I, and finally, that this is done to create distance in a conversation when dealing with problematicity.

The indefinite man or the personal man?

The example above has shown that man can be used to create distance when dealing with something problematic in conversation, and that in these cases, man is replaceable with I. Man is used a lot in conversation, and I have been searching for instances of man occurring in places where it seemed like something potentially problematic could be going on – and furthermore, that man in these cases was replaceable with I. It should be pointed out that, as Jensen and Gregersen (2016) stated, these instances of man functioning as self-reference are very specialized cases. They do not appear everywhere in conversation, and how does the analyst even separate an indefinite man from a personal one? Is it even possible to say anything conclusive about man being replaceable with I? Conversation Analysis (CA) does not deal with the cognitive aspect of speakers, but instead looks at how turns are organized, structured and designed in social contexts and what that can convey about and between speakers (Maynard 2013). The primary intention and method in CA is to look at how speakers interpret and understand utterances in conversation. This means that dealing with man being replaceable with I could challenge what the CA method is capable of doing. We are not inside heads of the speakers, nor are we trying to be – we only look at what they are actually saying. So can we even say anything about man reflecting the speaker actually referring to him/herself? In the example above I have tried to argue for this despite limitations and only looking at what is happening in the conversation. There are several arguments for the possibility of man being replaceable with I, but it can never be known for sure if it could have happened or not.

The definition of man is quite broad and goes from referring to an unspecified person being a representative of a group to referring to people in general with no deixis at all. So who is man? Jensen (2009) says that all Danish pronouns used for generic reference appear with non-generic uses as well. He basically agrees with generic pronouns such as man are fluid by claiming: “It is therefore in many cases more appropriate to work with ‘pronouns used with generic reference’ than with generic pronouns as such…”. On the basis of this statement and the paragraph above, I will not try to define what man should or should not be referring to.

This post has shown that man can be used as a personal pronoun when dealing with problematicity in conversation. Further investigations should provide an overview of man describing how it normally occurs in conversation and then compare it specifically to this practice – maybe this could define man or at least show some of its scope. Since the occurrence of this practice is limited, it should be further investigated using more data to support it. It could be relevant to look at conversations dealing with something fragile or sensitive where the need for distance could be assumed to be higher, and maybe in these cases a self-referring man would occur more often.

Andrea Bruun is a Linguistics graduate from Aarhus University and is now doing a PhD at the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department at UCL. 

Want to read more?

Jensen, Torben J. 2009. Generic variation? Developments in use of generic pronouns in late 20th     cen-tury spoken Danish. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia 41(1): 83-115.

Jensen, Torben J. & Frans Gregersen. 2016. What do(es) you mean? The pragmatics of generic     second person pronouns in modern spoken Danish. International Pragmatics Association 26(3): 417-446.

Maynard, Douglas W. 2013. Everyone and No One to Turn to: Intellectual Roots and Contexts for Conversation Analysis. In: Stivers, Tanya & Jack Sidnell (eds.). The Handbook of Conversation Analysis. Oxford: Black well. 11-31.

Sacks, Harvey & Emanuel A. Schegloff. 1979. Two Preferences in the Organization of Reference to    Persons in Conversation and Their Interaction. In: Psathas, George (ed.). Everyday Language.        Studies in Ethnomethodology. New York: Irvington Publishers. 15-22.

Sacks, Harvey, Emanuel A. Schegloff & Gail Jefferson. 1974. A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation. Language 50(1): 696-735.

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