6

For example,

english: me, mine, my

Russian: мне, меня, мой

Estonian: mina, mind, mulle

How prevalent is this in world's languages and what should it be attributed to?

  • 1
    I wonder if this is related to /m/ also being a very common sound when saying "mother" in many different languages? (The idea being, I think, that /m/ is extremely easy to pronounce. See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mama_and_papa) – grautur Sep 15 '11 at 3:16
16

According to WALS, no. 53 languages sampled have /m/ in the first person singular and 177 languages do not. More interestingly though, there are more than just the Indo-European languages (like all your examples) that have 1st person pronouns with /m/.

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  • 4
    Just to correct, Estonian is not indo-european, but Uralic. – Frédéric Grosshans Sep 14 '11 at 14:32
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    A common counter-example: in Chinese, the first person is 我 Wǒ – Frédéric Grosshans Sep 14 '11 at 14:36
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    Estonian is surrounded by IE langs so maybe a borrowing/sprachbund feature? – kaleissin Sep 14 '11 at 14:40
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    @kaleissin: sprachbund is likely. This is one of the purported evidences for the Nostratic hypothesis, however. – JSBձոգչ Sep 14 '11 at 14:55
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    @Frédéric: East Asian language violate other universals of pronouns (at least Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) and they are often analysed to be much more like nouns than in other languages. For instance pronouns in these language can change a lot over time whereas in most languages this is considered to be the most conservative class of words. – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 18:04
6

Expanding on kaleissin's answer, WALS further said that the /m/ sound for first person pronoun is common in northern Eurasia (regardless of language family) and rare elsewhere, and tend to co-occur with T-like consonant as second person pronouns (usually t, d, s).

Two theories have been discussed for the apparent regional universality

  • Nasal consonants (like m) are easy to pronounce, so they have higher probability to occur in basic words such as pronouns. However, this theory can't explain why "m" is dominant than other nasal sounds, why only first-person, and why m-based first-person pronouns tend to co-occur with t-based second-person pronouns. This also can't explain why it's only common in northern Eurasia.

  • They come from the same genealogical origin. However this combination appears in many language families, such as Indo-European, Turkic and Uralic (and they also have T-based second person pronoun).

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