Annals of the AIC: the African American vote

Ali Velshi, on MSNBC on 2/23 (yes, yes, I am absurdly far behind in my posting, maybe irretrievably; life has been very hard), talking about:

(a) … the African American vote, and what is motivating them in the coming elections [in South Carolina]

African American vote is understood here as ‘the vote of/by African Americans’, and African Americans is what the later anaphoric personal pronoun them refers to, though the noun African American(s) doesn’t occur in the example, only the adjective African American. So the example would once have been seen as a violation of a purported condition on grammatical well-formedness, the Anaphoric Island Constraint (AIC) — but in fact, in the context, it seems scarcely problematic, if at all.

A political (but not linguistic) note, in a map

There’s an Anaphoric Islands Page on this blog. From its first entry, about my 10/20/07 LLog posting “More fun with VPE”:

Another topic from roughly forty years ago, when it was first suggested that lexical items are “islands” for anaphora, that parts of lexical items or referents merely evoked by lexical items cannot serve as antecedents for anaphoric elements (of several different kinds)

Originally formulated as a constraint on grammar, the AIC has come to be seen as a (highly contextual) dispreference for certain antecedent-anaphor pairings. See the material on my Page.

People differ in their tolerance for AIC violations. And judgments can be sensitive to small differences in content. Compare (a), which has an ethnic/racial adjective, with (b), which has a religious-affiliation adjective:

(b) … the Catholic / Lutheran vote, and what is motivating them in the coming elections [with them referring to Catholics / Lutherans]

I find Velshi’s (a) example unproblematic; I noticed it only because I’m a linguist who collects apparent AIC violations. On the other hand, I initially balked at (b); it takes a bit of work to figure out who them refers to. (Note: these are my reactions; I don’t expect everyone to share them.)

My speculation is that I am accustomed to thinking of African Americans as a political bloc, but of Catholics and Lutherans primarily as aggregations of individual believers (though they can bond together on occasion for political action). So the noun African American is salient in (a) in a way that the nouns Catholic and Lutheran are not in (b). But this is just a speculation.

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