One Linguistic Feature in the Brothers Grimm: Pronoun Usage
The Brothers Grimm is a collection of fairy tales. There are many linguistics features used in the tales, partially because the Grimm brothers were linguists during their lifetimes. It would be only natural that they would incorporate some of that into what they wrote for others. The linguistics feature focused on in this paper is the use of pronouns. Six fairy tales will be used to discuss and address the pronoun usage of the Brothers Grimm, so that comparisons can be drawn. The reason behind this is that some scholars and others are very interested in the way the Brothers Grimm addressed pronoun usage, since they originally wrote in German. The gender of the nouns and the way the pronouns were used were said to not always match up, at least in translation, leading one to wonder why they would make that type of "mistake." Was it a translation error, or was there more to it than that? This paper seeks to answer that question, as well as to show the value and usage of pronouns in six of the fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm.
In many of the fairy tales created by the Brothers Grimm, there is some inconsistence with the pronouns used. Sometimes, the neuter pronouns are used in German, and other times the pronouns are distinctly male or female. There are times when the noun and its pronoun equivalent agree, from a gender standpoint, and times when they do not. That, of course, is a serious concern, because it is possible that some of the fairy tales that people know and love today have been mistranslated and misunderstood all of this time. Examples of these kinds of issues are important, of course, to make sure the reader completely understands what is being addressed. Because these examples are necessary, six Grimm fairy tales will be used in this paper to show the points the researcher is interested in making and to show where the pronouns match their nouns and where they do not.
How did the Brothers Grimm view girls and women, and did that affect their pronoun usage? Sometimes, the Brothers Grimm used es (the neuter pronoun) and other times sie (the female pronoun). Looking at where and when they used each of these pronouns and in what context can help correlate linguistic issues with other issues that may be related to how women were viewed during that time and, therefore, how those women were portrayed in fairy tales and other works. Translation could also be an issue, because English does not have the es/sie distinction in the same way German does. While whoever translated from the German to the English should have certainly been aware of that difference, it is also possible that something was misunderstood, taken out of context, or even changed to make more sense. Writings of every kind are often adapted when they are translated from one language to the next, and the Brothers Grimm may be no exception to that.
When the Brothers Grimm were translated, both the feminine and neuter pronouns in German both became "she" in English. Technically, that was grammatically inaccurate and affected the way the pronouns were intended as based on the original work. In most cases, the translation works, but in some cases it may have been better to translate as "it" instead of "she." While there is no real gender confusion with the fairy tales, there is a pronoun discrepancy that is very interesting and that is really unsolvable because it is not possible to ask the Brothers Grimm why they used neuter pronouns in certain places. In The Brave Little Tailor, for example, the German word for "little tailor" is gender neutral, but the es pronoun is avoided. Cinderella and Mary's Child both have pronoun issues of a different sort in that the majority of the narrative uses es while only parts of it use sie. This makes for inconsistencies in pronoun use that are difficult to explain or understand.
One of the ways in which the pronouns are used by the Brothers Grimm is contextual. Es is often used for female characters who are perceived as young, good, nice, and unsexed, while sie is used for female characters that are evil, older, naughty, or sexed/sexual. Labeling characters this way, though, does provide a complexity of style that would not be seen otherwise. Rapunzel offers one of the best examples of this kind of contextual pronoun usage, and it comes at the most expected time. During the beginning of the story, when Rapunzel is a little girl, she is referred to as es. After the witch locks her in the tower, the pronoun changes to sie, although the character was always female and has, technically, not changed. There is no reason that this should take place, other than the way Rapunzel was perceived changed because she was available for marriage/sex in a way that she was not before she was locked in the tower by the witch.
Tales like The Six Swans and The True Bride also "play" with pronoun usage in a way that does not seem to completely conform to the gender of the characters. These tales do largely the same thing as the other tales addressed here, in that they keep the young, innocent girl as es (it) until she is available for something more and/or until she is sexed, naughty, or evil. At that point she becomes sie (she), even though it was clear from the rest of the story and the context that she was a female character all along. Did the Brothers Grimm think of young women and innocent young girls as "it," or did they simply write that way to create a distinction between young and old, good and evil, innocent and sexual? It is very difficult to answer that question, really, because there are subtleties to these distinctions that would need to be made and agreed upon before the question could be completely answered.
For example, the Brothers Grimm appear to show good and evil as character traits that are enduring and that will remain with a person throughout his or her entire lifetime. However, they also show naughty and nice as being traits that can be changeable. A person who is basically good can still be a little bit naughty from time to time, but this is not the same thing as being evil. Even evil people can sometimes do something nice, but that does not magically transform them into good people. They are still evil, despite their apparently weak moment of kindness. In the world of the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales, it did not seem as though any woman who was evil could ever really be nice, and she certainly did not become "good." However, "good" women could become "evil" over time, and that did take place in some of their tales. While the pronoun usage was likely designed to separate the two groups, it can still become confusing for someone who is uncertain as to why young women and girls are being referred to as "it" instead of "she."
One of the reasons that the noun/pronoun discrepancy is so significant in fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm is that there is already much gender stereotyping in the world today - and that was certainly also the case when the Brothers Grimm were writing their fairy tales. Language and gender stereotyping is something that can be very subtle, but that is always with society. Referring to a girl or young woman as "it" would have no place in an English-speaking society today, and it is unlikely it would have a place in German-speaking society, either. There are still nouns that are gender neutral and that use the es pronoun, but these are generally not used to refer to people of either gender. That seems an inappropriate way, as though one is called that person less-than by calling them an "it" instead of a person. There is no actual evidence that this was what the Brothers Grimm were trying to do, but there is speculation that they did not look up to or admire women.
From a linguistics standpoint that makes sense, but it does not really make sense from a contextual standpoint. The reason behind this is that the Brother Grimm wrote many fairy tales where the woman was the "star of the show." She was often the heroine, or she was the main or central character even if she was naughty or evil. If the Brothers Grimm did not think highly of women, why would they have written so much about them in their fairy tales? This is one of the questions that cannot really be answered, but that is worth considering by those who feel as though the Brothers Grimm looked down on women and purposely called them "it" instead of "she." The most likely reason…