What languages lack personal pronouns, and why?

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2

The Japanese language lacks personal pronouns in the IE sense. Japanese is very pro-drop, and often sentences will be constructed so personal pronouns do not appear, and the agents which the pronouns would have referred to are implicit from the context.

In the first person, however, pronouns do occur with some frequency, but these are really "special nouns" such as 私 watashi (originally "individual") or 僕 boku ("servant").

In the second person, pronouns are often avoided completely, since using them can be considered rude. When they are used, they are special nouns like in the first person case, e.g. 君 kimi ("lord") or お前 omae ("before me").

Apart from the noun argument, there are other reasons why these seem different from personal pronouns in the IE sense:

  1. They have changed a lot over time, e.g. a samurai in the Edo period might have referred to himself as 拙者 sessha, but this is not used anymore.
  2. These "pronouns" can be modified by adjectives and relative clauses like other nouns, which is not the case for pronouns in the IE languages that I know of.

The lack of real personal pronouns seems very curious to me. You would imagine that it is one of the first things that a language develops.

Questions:

  1. What other languages, if any, have no pronouns (or all pronouns have some/all of the above peculiarities, or maybe other peculiarities)?
  2. Is it reasonable to believe that these languages lacked "real" pronouns from the very beginning, or is it reasonable to believe that they lost them due to some process (e.g. because there is a tendency to avoid them like in Japanese)?

Edit: I've edited the formulation slightly, since I already know about polite 2nd person pronouns covered by nouns/3rd persons/plurals. I also know about the tendency for non-nominative forms to take over the nominative forms.

dainichi

Posted 2012-02-14T14:39:01.423

Reputation: 1 048

thanks for asking this question, I was going to ask it after your answer on my question.

Artem Kaznatcheev 2012-02-14T23:37:24.970

This phenomenon of using 'special nouns' instead of normal pronouns is fairly common in the 2nd person in many languages, especially in polite discourse. In Polish the various forms of the perfectly normal noun Pan/Pani (lit. Lord/Lady) are used as polite address In Spanish of course "vuestra merced" has become "Usted" and is now a pronoun again.Mark Beadles 2012-02-15T03:18:23.350

I'm pretty certain that the situation in Korean is just the same as in Japanese. Pronouns are more like pseudo-pronouns or "special nouns". I'm curious about Chinese too.hippietrail 2012-02-16T07:13:23.653

Some simple Korean pronouns http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_nouns_and_pronouns, na neo geu, seem to take particles in a special way, distinguishing them from other nouns (maybe similar to the Japanese ones mentioned in @Matt's answer. Chinese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_pronouns doesn't have morphology to begin with, so it might be harder to find something distinguishing pronouns from nouns.

dainichi 2012-02-16T07:57:01.517

1Syntax can distinguish pronouns from nouns just as well as morphology can. Open vs closed is also important as has been noted in this QA already. Also note that modern Mandarin seems to have especially few pronouns compared to other related varieties (and eras) of Chinese.hippietrail 2012-02-16T21:33:55.067

@hippietrail, you're absolutely right about the syntax, good point. For Chinese, I'm curious whether e.g. wo and ni are special in any way compared to other pronouns/nouns. Even if the class is open that doesn't mean it can't have a special "core" with special properties, like e.g. the archaic ware/wa in Japanese.dainichi 2012-02-17T09:13:32.003

Yes @dainichi that's exactly the stuff I'm interested in wrt Chinese pronouns. By the way it seems that Vietnamese also has a somewhat open class but I'm no expert there. I wonder if there's some Sprachbund between the Austronesian languages through part of Southeast Asia up to East Asia with this feature?hippietrail 2012-02-17T11:31:26.583

(Modern Standard Mandarin) Chinese has a very normal pronoun system. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anything remotely exotic about it, from the perspective of English. Classical Chinese on the other hand...

Stumpy Joe Pete 2012-06-22T10:10:10.493

Answers

12

Probably the easiest one to talk about is Bahasa Melayu (Malay, Indonesian, Malaysian). As Jack Prentice put it in his review of Indonesian for The World's Major Languages, "pronoun" is an open class in Malay.

Any noun that can refer to a human being can be used as a personal pronoun, and person, number, age, and gender (for example) are only a few of the many categories that are relevant to pronoun choice in Bahasa. Plus {Zero} is the most common pronoun, for all persons.

By the way, much the same is true of related languages I'm familiar with, like Minangkabau, Acehnese, and Javanese.

jlawler

Posted 2012-02-14T14:39:01.423

Reputation: 6 975

1It looks like such situation with pronouns is an areal feature of most of the languages of East Asia.Yellow Sky 2014-02-03T18:49:26.763

Interesting. This sounds very similar to Japanese. So to compensate for the null-pronouns, do the verbs have special conjugations, are there special verbs, or are there other constructs to clarify? Incidentally, I'm not sure about the exact definition of open/closed. In Japan, nouns used as pronouns change, but it's a slow process. It's not like I can just go and pick some more or less fitting noun and be understood.dainichi 2012-02-15T04:58:12.047

"Open" classes are categories like noun, verb, adjective, which are large classes of descriptive words, prone to accept borrowings and novel constructions. "Closed" classes are categories like preposition, conjunction, article, classifier, which are small classes of words with grammatical or basic semantic functions, unlikely to accept borrowings or novel words. In most languages pronouns are a closed class; in Indonesian they're not. That's unusual. Japanese works differently.jlawler 2012-02-15T15:57:20.240

For instance, in the Malay version (Budak Kampung) of Lat's famous _Kampung Boy_, the narrator uses the Malay noun teman 'friend' as a first person pronoun throughout; the original English, not surprisingly, used I.

jlawler 2012-02-15T16:07:41.320

Let me just add here that Thai pronouns are quite similar. Most of them are "special words" like "servant", "lord". In colloquial speech, they are often replaced by nicknames, sometimes prefixed with "special words" like "sister". Even for 1st and 2nd person.bytebuster 2013-01-29T22:40:10.707

7

First of all, note that being a pro-drop language doesn't necessarily mean that a given language lacks pronouns. They just avoid using them because they are not required in all situations.

Japanese is not a pro-drop because its personal pronouns have a particular etymology. It's pro-drop because when people speak Japanese, they omit these pronouns, since they can be understood from the context, or for a matter of "polite/casual speech". In other languages they are avoided because the morphology of that language already brings that information.

Let's take as an example the verb parlare which means "to speak" in Italian. The first person would be "io parlo". But usually people say "parlo", as there is no need for us to use the personal pronouns. If I say "parlo", everyone will understand who I'm referring to without ambiguity at all. But it would be also wrong to say that Italian lacks personal pronouns, since they do exist but they're simply not always required, as they are in English.

I'm not aware of any language that lacks pronouns completely. Probably it'd be easier to find languages that have less than others. But languages tend to "economize", so pronouns are one of the logical consequences. Regarding your second question, I think it'd deserve a question by itself. Anyway, even if languages lose a certain personal pronoun, it's not granted that they will just lose it, as they can simply replace it. Let me re-take Italian again:

We have egli/ella (he/she) and lui/lei (him/her). The second ones have almost totally replaced the first ones. I'd never say "egli mi ha detto che..." which means he told me that..., but rather "lui mi ha detto che..." and theoretically this would be wrong, because it would be like saying *him told me that... but now it's the common form being used by native speakers. This would deserve itself research on its own, but as you can see even if "we're losing" a pronoun, instead of being without one, we replaced it.

Alenanno

Posted 2012-02-14T14:39:01.423

Reputation: 7 102

1Sorry to vote this down, it was because it focuses more on the nature of pro-drop languages rather than on the OP's question and then the assumption in the third paragraph is well negated by jlawler's answer.hippietrail 2012-02-17T11:33:31.230

@hippietrail It addresses something the OP said that I thought to be wrong (although I didn't ignore his other request). But I don't understand, what paragraph are you referring to? Is it the one that starts with "Let's take as an example..."?Alenanno 2012-02-17T13:10:05.250

The paragraph which begins "I'm not aware of any language that lacks pronouns completely..."hippietrail 2012-02-17T14:18:20.267

1It does address interesting things by the way, I just don't find it to be an answer to which languages lack pronouns in the IE sense.hippietrail 2012-02-17T14:19:25.537

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Regarding question (2), Japanese itself didn't always lack them. Old Japanese had a pronoun system (wa/ware, a/are, etc.) which coexisted with modern-style pseudo pronouns (kimi, etc.).

I don't know how parallel the OJ pronouns were to IE-style pronouns, but they were definitely distinct from other nouns -- the most obvious difference is the "long form" (ware) vs "short form" (wa) distinction, with the former used in isolation and the latter accepting particles like genitive "ga" (never "no"), etc.

Matt

Posted 2012-02-14T14:39:01.423

Reputation: 353

Interesting, thanks! I did know some of the OJ pronoun forms, but didn't realize they had these special characteristics. Found this online: http://conf.ling.cornell.edu/japanese_historical_linguistics/3.1%20Pronouns.pdf

dainichi 2012-02-15T07:28:28.367

0

well, In Farsi( Persian )-Iranian language- there is pro-drop which is optional to the speaker, او به مدرسه رفت(He/She went to school) به مدرسه رفت(went to school)

Danial

Posted 2012-02-14T14:39:01.423

Reputation: 1

Not exactly. While the stand-alone pronoun is pro-drop, the verb enclitic always includes the pronoun case. Like, by way of a contrived example, "am going now", no matter what, would always mean "I am going now" (yeah, even though this isn't valid in English). Persian is like this for all basic pronouns so there is never any confusion whatsoever. In your example above the lack of a voiced pronoun verb enclitic is just a case, it always means "he/she/it went."Todd Main 2014-08-05T05:38:52.920