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Sharpless, E.A. (1985). Identity Formation as Reflected in the Acquisition of Person Pronouns. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 33:861-885.

(1985). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 33:861-885

Identity Formation as Reflected in the Acquisition of Person Pronouns

Elizabeth A. Sharpless, Ph.D.


Psychoanalytic theory on identity formation during rapprochement is enriched by considering psycholinguistic findings on person-pronoun acquisition. Pronouns such as I and you have often been employed by psychoanalysts as behavioral markers of the intrapsychic concepts of self and other and used to make inferences about the representation of these concepts in children as young as 18 months. Psycholinguistic research, however, reveals two sets of facts which such inferences overlook. First, knowledge of person pronouns, as of other words, is a developmental phenomenon. In children under 22–24 months, prior to the resolution of the rapprochement crisis, pronoun usage is stereotypic and wedded to context. Testing in diverse situations shows that this child has no consistent interpretation of these words. Second, and more important, when children acquire mature understanding of these words at the close of that rapprochement subphase, the knowledge reflected is somewhat different than psychoanalysts have held. Psycholinguistics shows that the meanings children express through person pronouns involve concepts of conversational role where first person indicates speaker, second person, person addressed, and third person, other (third) parties.

It is argued that the psycholinguistic and psychoanalytic views on person-pronoun acquisition can be reconciled in the view that this developmental milestone is one of coordinating the expression of concepts of self and other with concepts of

conversational roles. For psychoanalysts, then, person pronoun acquisition becomes a signal not only of the child's appreciation of the separateness of self and other, but also of their interrelatedness through the participation of self and other in conversational roles. The cognitive representation of these roles can be considered to function as an early ego identification, facilitating children's progress from the dyad to the larger social milieu.

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