Who or which?

From the Lousy Linguist this morning:

… I stumbled across what appears to be a legitimate, well-meaning, but perhaps somewhat misguided research project: The who/which project. From the project web page:

One of the underlying causes of ecological destruction is the separation between humans and other animals. When nonhuman animals are treated according to balance sheets rather than their own nature, the result can be not only a life of misery for the animals concerned, but environmental devastation.  This research project looks at one area of language which both reflects and contributes to the gulf between humans and other animals: the pronouns who and which. Who, we are told by some but not all dictionaries and grammar books, refers exclusively to humans, which to nonhuman animals, plants and things. This project has begun by investigating the use of the pronouns who and which (and perhaps related topics later), starting with what dictionaries and grammar books prescribe and describe. Beyond this, the hope is that the project could contribute to efforts to bridge the gap between humans and other animals (emphasis added).

If I understand correctly, this project is going to try to analyze written rules for who/which in hopes of discovering some causal link to animal cruelty. This is founded on the belief the using a different pronoun to refer to animals causes us to think about them differently. I realize I’m exaggerating the project’s claims a bit and I’ll ask you to forgive me that because I want to lay bare the underlying assumptions. There is a Whorfian hypothesis underlying this project’s mission. Unfortunately, their methodology is far too superficial and simplistic to yield anything useful, I suspect.

There are a lot of grammatical preliminaries to get out of the way: who vs. which/that as restrictive relativizers, who vs. which as non-restrictive relativizers, and who vs. what as interrogatives, to start with. And then there are geographical and social dialect differences. And differences between speech and writing.

I have files on some of this, only one of which — the one on the relativizer who for human institutions, organizations, etc. (“the German firm who made the rocket”, from an American source) — I can locate at the moment. Somewhere, sigh, there’s a more relevant one, on the relativizer who for “lower” creatures (things like “the bacteria who we studied”) as well as for various “higher” animals with which (or whom) people have close relationships  (dogs, horses, and so on).

My interest in these things is mostly in people’s actual practice, which is clearly variable in complex ways, though the prescriptions in usage handbooks are worth study on their own, but as much for their value as expressions of implicit language ideology as well as for what they claim about standard usage.

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