This work examines the research to date on generic pronouns – that is, items such as English one and German man – and suggests how this can be advanced through empirical means. Issues of reference, deixis and pragmatic function are critically discussed from the persectives of cognitive linguistics, text and discourse analysis. Past research has primarily concerned itself with written discourse, or with data gathered under controlled conditions, such as researcher–participant interviews or elicited narratives. This work proposes spontaneous spoken discourse as a rich source of data for the investigation of generic pronouns, and uses a corpus of conversations between L1 German speakers to exemplify this. Quantitative and discourse analyses are combined with participant interviews to present a profile of the two dominant generic pronouns – man, and the second person pronoun du – and results challenge the widely held assumption that speakers prefer to use man over du when expressing generic reference. Interlocutors are shown to use particular generic pronouns in combination with other discourse features – such as modality and relational language – to dynamically construct identities for themselves and others as the conversation progresses, and to manipulate participant roles and relationships. Suggestions are ultimately made for future research directions, based on the findings of this study
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