Generic variation? Developments in use of generic pronouns in late 20th century spoken Danish

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In modern Danish, a handful of pronouns may be used to refer to a generic referent. In recent decades, the second person singular pronoun du has gained ground, apparently in parallel to similar recent developments in other languages. Even though generic du may not be as old as the traditional generic pronoun man, it is not a new variant in Danish if we by “new” mean that it has come into existence within the last 30-40 years. To all appearances, it has been used before the influence from English became significant in the last part of the 20th century, and the generic du as such need therefore not be explained by contact with English, as often assumed.
In order to study the spread of the generic use of du we analysed the use of pronouns with generic reference in a large sample of speakers, most of whom were recorded during sociolinguistic interviews twice – the first time in the period 1978-1989 and the second time in 2005-07. The speakers come from four locations in Denmark, and three different age cohorts are represented in the study. The results show both a rise and a decline in the use of generic du in the time interval from the 1970s and 1980s till today in accordance with the hypothesis that the increased use of generic du began in Copenhagen and started spreading from Copenhagen to the rest of the country before the time of the old recordings in the 1980s. However, the use of generic du has peaked, or is about to peak, in the Danish speech community seen as a whole, and the developments in the use of generic pronouns should probably be seen within an overall perspective of stable variation.

Received July 3rd 2008; revised version received September 8th 2008

TidsskriftActa Linguistica Hafniensia: International Journal of Linguistics
Sider (fra-til)83-115
Antal sider23
StatusUdgivet - 2009

Bibliografisk note

This is an electronic version of an article published in "Acta Linguistica Hafniensia: International Journal of Linguistics" Volume 41, Issue 1.
Acta Linguistica Hafniensia is available online at:


  • Det Humanistiske Fakultet - sprogforandring, grammatik, pronominer, dansk, sociolingvistik, generic, pronouns, spoken Danish, lifespan language change, real and apparent time studies, spatial dynamics, language variation and change

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