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Project C3 - Variation and change of morpho-syntactic reference

PIs: Jürg Fleischer, Ulrike Domahs
Ph.D.-student: Christin Schütze

Research context

This subproject deals with grammatical and cognitive representation in the processing of linguistic utterances by examining the reference of anaphoric possessive pronouns in the 3rd person singular. In German, the 3rd person singular possessive pronoun is congruent with the gender of the possessor:

  • der Bruder ᵢ … sein ᵢ Buch [the brother ᵢ … his ᵢ book]
  • die Schwester ᵢ … ihr ᵢ Buch [the sister ᵢ … her ᵢ book]

However, even in Standard German there are many instances in which the possessive pronoun sein refers to feminine nouns (Fleischer 2022):

  • die Sache ᵢ geht seinen ᵢ Weg (Duden Grammatik 2016: 275) [the matter takes its course]. 

This can be interpreted as sein being underspecified with respect to grammatical gender (genus). Corpus analyses suggest that genus-insensitive sein occurs primarily with inanimate nouns. However, evidence can also be found for grammatically feminine nouns referring to male persons, such as:

  • Die Brillis sind von Diego Maradonas Ohren nicht wegzudenken. Die Fußballlegende ᵢ ist für seinen ᵢ Ohrschmuck bekannt. [It is impossible to imagine Diego Maradona's ears without the “brillis” [brilliant-cut diamonds]. The soccer legend ᵢ (feminine) is known for his/its ᵢ (masculine/neutral) ear jewelry] (Spiegel-Online; Fleischer 2022: 279)

At the grammar-society interface, discordances between grammatical gender category and social gender invite interdisciplinary and multimethodological research approaches.

Current dissertation project

Working title: Acceptability and processing of genus-variable possessive pronouns in reference to epicene person nouns.


Acceptability and EEG studies will be used to investigate the extent to which the animacy restriction found for the modern standard can be established in a violation paradigm.
The focus lies on the comparison of inanimate and human nouns that can be used as overarching social genders. These epicenes may occur in anaphoric reference grammatically congruent with ihr [her], or semantically or stereotypically congruent with sein [his/its]:

  • Die Sicherheitskraft ᵢ nimmt ihren ᵢ neuen Job sehr ernst. [The security guard ᵢ (feminine, gender-indifferent) takes her ᵢ new job very seriously].
  • Die Sicherheitskraft ᵢ nimmt seinen ᵢ neuen Job sehr ernst. [The security guard ᵢ (feminine, gender-indifferent) takes his/its ᵢ new job very seriously].

In such cases, referential gender, i.e., gender of the referent, competes with the grammatical rule of agreement. With predominantly gender-based pronominalisation (Thurmair 2006), congruence restrictions would be successfully overridden; referential agreement would be subject to extra-linguistic sources of information of gendered attributions.

Evidence from conscious (acceptability judgments) and automatic responses (processing patterns) to variant forms of reference aims to shed light on the complex interaction of genus and gender and the construction of representations of human nouns.


A questionnaire study first tests the acceptability of reference with genus-(in)congruent possessives to epicene person nouns and inanimate nouns, depending on animacy, linear distance (see Binanzer et al. 2022), and properties of the possessed noun (genus/number) as potential factors of influence.
Subsequently, an EEG study will be conducted to investigate the cognitive processing involved in comprehending these structures. It utilises the controlled stimuli of the preliminary study in an experimental setting to evoke ERP data. Methodologically, this genderlinguistic approach with a neurolinguistic procedure is adapted from the work of Irmen et al. (2010) and Misersky et al. (2019).
An evaluation survey of the gender typicality of the epicene person nouns used accompanies the studies, by means of which the degree of typicality of the nouns is collected (Misersky et al. 2014). This is also considered to influence the acceptance and processing of the respective type of congruency of the reference (see Irmen & Kurovskaja 2010 and Irmen et al. 2010).

Preliminary work

A qualitatively substantiated, rich database for the research topic has been provided by Fleischer's (2022) corpus study of mainly inanimate nouns in the feminine that occur with the genus-insensitive possessive pronoun sein. Regarding the typicality assessment of epicene person nouns in German, Steriopolo and Schütze (forthcoming 2023) already had a selection of gender-neutral feminine nouns rated. Since the beginning of the project, the required stimulus materials have been designed.

  • Binanzer, Anja, Sarah Schimke & Silke Schunack (2022): Syntaktische Domäne oder lineare Distanz – welcher Faktor steuert semantische Kongruenz im Kontext von Hybrid Nouns und Epikoina in stärkerem Maß? In: Diewald/Nübling (Hrsg.): Genus – Sexus – Gender (Linguistik – Impulse und Tendenzen 95). Berlin (u.a.): de Gruyter. 193-218
  • Fleischer, Jürg (2022): „Qualität hat seinen Preis“: Genus-insensitives sein im Gegenwartsdeutschen. Linguistische Berichte 271. 251-288.

  • Irmen, Lisa & Julia Kurovskaja (2010): On the semantic content of grammatical gender and its impact on the representation of human referents. Experimental Psychology, 57(5), 367-375.

  • Irmen, Lisa, Daniel V. Holt & Matthias Weisbrod (2010): Effects of role typicality on processing person information in German: Evidence from an ERP study. Brain research 1353, 133-144.

  • Misersky, Julia et al. (2014): Norms on the gender perception of role nouns in Czech, English, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, and Slovak. Behavior research methods 46.3. 841-871.

  • Misersky, Julia, Asifa Majid & Tineke M. Snijders (2019): Grammatical gender in German influences how role-nouns are interpreted: Evidence from ERPs. Discourse Processes, 56(8), 643-654.

  • Thurmair, Maria (2006): ‚Das Model und ihr Prinz‘. Kongruenz und Texteinbettung bei Genus-Sexus-Divergenz. Deutsche Sprache: ds, 34. 191-220.

  • Steriopolo Schütze (ersch. 2023): Feminine grammatical forms as gender-fair language in German: A gender typicality study of role and profession nouns. In: Benjamin Fagard & Ana Margarida Abrantes (Hrsg.) Language and Gender. NA.

Relation to other projects

Morpho-syntactic processes and variations are also emphasised in project C2. Semantic analyses of mental representations are furthermore addressed in project C4, to which there is a link in this respect.