There seems to be a difference between these two pronouns besides the obvious one of animacy. I want to know if people agree or can point out the flaw in my thinking.
I've been attempting to wrangle some pronouns into a constructed language I've been making. In the process of doing so, I've done a lot of research, especially on the English language. For a long time, "it" (the personal pronoun, not the dummy pronoun) has been bothering me, and now I think I know why.
One of the tricks I've developed for determining the fine differences in meaning between nouns is to attempt to replace them with something else to see if the meaning has changed. For conjunctions, I move around the clauses of a sentence in order to figure out the exact mechanism.
It didn't occur to me to attempt this trick with "it" until recently. And when I tried it, I got some interesting results:
1) "Where's my book?" "It's on the table."
2) "Isn't my kitty precious?" "I think it's evil, but whatever."
3) "This Rubik's Cube is driving me crazy!" sigh "Give it to me."
I spent such a long time trying to figure out a noun phrase that worked as a replacement. Originally, I tried to use demonstratives (for reasons that will become clear), but they never sounded right.
Then I figured out this:
"The thing's on the table."
"I think the thing's evil, but whatever."
sigh "Give the thing to me."
Note: "that" (demonstrative pronoun) would not have worked; in cases 1 and 2, that would have sounded wrong. "that thing" might have worked for 2, but it sounds even worse for 1.
I'm not saying that it's a perfect fit; "the thing" may not quite sound right in some circumstances, but it's meaning seems to be remarkably close to "it". I can't think of any examples where it would sound downright wrong. Furthermore, the fact that it sounds awkward in some situations to English speaker's ears may have more to do with the ready-and-waiting "it"; why phrase things so that it takes longer?
This is interesting because if using the definite article together with "thing" is a stronger replacement for "it" than using "that", then a similar trick should work with he/she, right? "the person" perhaps.
A) "Who is he?" "He's the President."
B) "Shh! The boss is coming this way." "Ugh, he's such a jerk."
C) "Mom says you're grounded." "Why does she have to ruin everything?"
D) "Annie wants us to go to Six Flags." "She got us tickets? Sweet!"
When I was experimenting with ways to replace he/she, I first hit upon "that person".
"that person" works well for A and B:
"Who is that person?" "That person is the president." "Ugh, that person's such a jerk."
But it only barely works for C or D (if at all). I instinctively know why; family and friends seem too close in the social deixis for "that person" to work. People who you know seem to be barred from the use of "that person" in the discourse.
"that" has even less of a success rate; it only seems to fit with A:
"Who is that?" "That's the president."
Both "this" and "that", when used to refer to people (this is my father, these are my friends, that's Annie by the bunch bowl, etc...) seem to work best when used in questions or introductions. Why is that?
"the person" flat out does not work at all. The definite article is simply too vague, for some reason.
So, to recap: "the thing" seems to work reasonably well as a replacement for "it", and sometimes demonstratives work better, but the other third person pronouns seem to require at least a demonstrative in its replacement, if it can be replaced at all (the referent may be too close for it to work right). Using the definite article just doesn't work.
Is there an explanation for this? Are "it" and "he/she" even more fundamentally different than I originally thought?