Don’t you just hate when you’re forced to face up to the fact you’re not as virtuous as you think you are?
One of the courses I’m currently writing for the International Fund for Animal Welfare came back to me with some corrections. My reviewer had changed the following sentence, the change in capitals.
“Dogs WHO showed pessimistic behaviours were more depressed.”
And try as I might, my gaze kept tripping over that word. Dogs Who, Dogs Who, Dogs Who.
Let us momentarily leap backwards in time to our English classes. My education contained very little formal grammar training, which may be obvious to the casual reader, but even I know that personal pronouns (e.g. who, he, she, they) are reserved for people. Animal are referred to as objects (e.g. which, it, that).
“The dog which barked” is preferable to “The dog who barked”.
“It is lying in the cat basket” may be preferable to “she is lying in the cat basket”.
This can lead to the English language treating animals very strangely. For example, say you visit a new acquaintance. You know this acquaintance has two cats, Gin and Tonic (this friend might be a bit odd), but you see one cat on the windowsill. You want to know, is that cat Gin or is that cat Tonic? You may ask “What cat is that?” or “Which cat is that?” seeing as you know it is one of two. It would be wrong to say “Who is that?”
Is it problematic to refer to animals as objects? Well first we have to ask if grammar affects the way we think. (And before we go any further I want to tell you that journals on grammar and semantics are almost as impenetrable as journals on molecular genetics)
Boroditsky (2009) investigated the differences in how speakers of English and Mandarin thought about time. In English we speak of time as a horizontal construct (you look ahead to the good times and back on the bad times) whereas in Mandarin time is spoken of in a vertical manner (the paper gives the translated example “what is the year before the year of the tiger?”).
The experiment itself is a bit odd to get your head around, but first they primed English and Mandarin speakers with either vertical or horizontal concepts (i.e. the black worm is ahead of the white worm, the black ball is below the white ball) and then given ‘target’ statements about time ‘March is earlier than April’, ‘March is before April’.
English speakers answered these questions faster after hearing a horizontal prime (similar to how they think of time) and Mandarin speakers answered these questions faster after they had heard a vertical prime (similar to how they think of time). Boroditsky concludes that the way we speak frames the way we perceive the world.
But does this happen in animal welfare? Well I’m not the only one who wondered about this. Gilquin & Jacobs (2006) wrote a paper which is whimsically titled ‘Elephants Who Marry Mice’. They reviewed style standards in various publication manuals. For example, the Guardian’s, which you can find here, says:
pronoun “it” unless gender established
The Guardian also says:
Please do not say “anymore” any more
So I don’t dream of writing a Comment Is Free column anymore.
Unsurprisingly, Gilquin and Jacobs found that it was the familiar animals (horses, dogs, cats, etc.) which scored a ‘who’ more often than the non familiar animals. Furthermore, publications aimed at animal-related interest groups were more likely to use ‘who’, e.g. Dogs Today.
They noted that in general texts or interviews, the personal pronoun was used when the author wanted to garner sympathy for the animal in question. It is “the poor cat who was stuck in a tree” rather than “the cat which was stuck in the tree”.
More interestingly, given some of my other posts on anthropomorphism, 60% of the sentences they found which used the personal pronoun for the animals attributed human-like characteristics to the animals.
Gilquin and Jacobs conclude that ‘who’ is used in English to refer to animals, although inconsistently. They suggest a wider adoption of this grammatical structure might engender more empathy for animals from humans, something which I think reflects what Ganea et al found in their work.
Should animal welfare scientists be calling for the personal pronoun usage?
I really can’t decide. I’m not convinced that it will completely change the way we think about animals. But it’s a nudge you might want to be aware of if you’re talking animal welfare science.
And for what it’s worth, I changed the text on the course.