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Fiction is rife with characters who always speak in third person. Often, such characters are portrayed as having a native language or culture that lacks the concept of a first person, and hence they are supposedly unable to grasp the first person when speaking English (or whatever fictional language is being rendered as English). Often such characters don't seem to have problems understanding other English speakers who do freely use the first or second person.

Are there any examples of this in real life? Are there any cultures, whose members are known to have difficulty mastering the grammatical first person when they learn English, even once they learn English at an advanced level? Are there any known pathologies that produce such an effect?

I know there are examples of people who at one time spoke about themselves in the third person, for various reasons. However, to my knowledge these are always either out of choice (ie. the person can speak in the first person, but chooses not to for some reason, such as dramatic effect or politeness) or a trivial lack of competence (ie. the person otherwise understands the first person, and can use when speaking other languages, but happens to have a very rudimentary knowledge of English and avoids first person due to not being familiar with the grammar).

  • Are you asking about the languages with no concept of first person, or those with no first person pronoun? Also note that some languages have no infinitive forms of verbs; they use first person finite form instead. – bytebuster Jun 26 '16 at 5:04
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    @bytebuster. What language uses the 1st person (singular? plural?) instead of the infinitive? – fdb Jun 26 '16 at 10:15
  • I'm not sure what you mean by first person in your question... – virmaior Jun 26 '16 at 10:23
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    It makes a difference whether we're talking about a hypothetical language spoken by H sapiens or by hypothetical aliens. In stories about hive-intellect aliens (with which SF teems), it's common enough to claim lack of 1pSg reference at all. Terry Pratchett's "Auditors" referred to themselves only in 1pPl. – jlawler Jun 26 '16 at 17:59
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    @bytebuster The concept. In fact, there is another question about languages that just don't have the pronoun, which I regard as completely separate from this. Many languages just happen to not have the pronoun per se, but the distinction between first person (the speaker), second person (the addressee) and third person is crystal clear in either grammar, syntax or semantics. – Superbest Jun 26 '16 at 18:48
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In languages that have no category of person, like Manju or Malay, there are dozens of politeness-specific words meaning "I" and "you", most of them being actually nouns. In such languages the same word can mean both "I" and "you" depending on who says it to whom, e.g. in Manju, when you talk to the Emperor, the word you must use for "you" is han (noun, meaning 'khan'), and when the Emperor addresses you, the word he uses for "I" is also han.

In Malay, when you write a letter to your grandma or grandpa, you use cucunda (noun, meaning 'grandchild') for "I" and nenda (noun, meaning 'grandparent') for "you". But when your grandma writes an answer letter to you, she uses the same 2 words, but with their meaning reversed, nenda for "I" and cucunda for "you".

These things can, naturally, be interpreted in different ways, but I think that languages that have the same words for "I" and "you" have a very vague idea of the 1st person pronoun, if any.

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    @downvoter - What's wrong with my answer, could you explain? – Yellow Sky Jun 28 '16 at 13:24
  • Interesting. How about the verbs, do they vary by person or they have just third person? Info about this would complete the answer IMO. (I am not the downvoter, I voted up.) – vin Jul 18 '16 at 13:53
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    Very nice example - I was thinking also that such a case might occur with honorifics and it is beautiful that it actually does. Also as a side note - I read somewhere a while ago that people diagnosed with psychopathy tend to refer to themselves and others with 3rd person much more frequently than normies. – Eleshar Jun 2 '17 at 16:47
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    @Eleshar - One more case when in a language there's no word for "I" is the computer programming languages. :) – Yellow Sky Jun 5 '17 at 12:35
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    Why describe those cases as the same word functioning as both pronouns depending on who uses it rather than cases where politeness requires role or kinship designators be used instead of pronouns? Malay is one of the languages that has received a NSM analysis; in 'Meaning and universal grammar theory and empirical findings. Volume I' Goddard identifies aku as I and kau as YOU. He argues that they are in fact unmarked semantically though in many situations their use would be very marked pragmatically. – Hungry Sep 10 '18 at 2:29
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I is one of the Semantic Primes of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage. Though NSM researchers have not considered every language in existence, they have studied languages from every large family (and if a language truly did not have this prime it would be one of the more obvious ones,) so I'd consider this decent evidence that this is something every language will have. Note that the primes may be represented by affixes or phrases rather than just single words.

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  • The link doesn't work ("File not found")... – lemontree Jun 27 '16 at 14:53
  • @lemontree fixed – curiousdannii Jun 27 '16 at 14:55
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    This most directly addresses the point of my question - although it boils down to "we haven't noticed any so probably not". So if anyone can find a counter example, I will happily change my accepted answer. – Superbest Jul 5 '16 at 19:26
  • link is dead again :( – DukeZhou Aug 29 '18 at 19:40
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I've found the question interesting and re-read a couple of books today searching for the answer.

The books are full of similar examples - languages with only 2 tenses, languages "with no grammar", etc.

There were NO mentioning of a language without first person. In fact, the closest fact (to the topic) that I've found there was about the Korean, where there are only two persons: the first and non-first (i.e. they don't distinguish second & third).

Edit: As pointed out by @jogloran in the comments, the above statement is probably false. There is some misunderstanding regarding the Korean honorific suffix "si".

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  • Interesting. Do you have a reference for the claim about Korean? – jogloran Jun 27 '16 at 3:39
  • I'll try to find one in a few hours when I get to the office. – tum_ Jun 27 '16 at 4:55
  • It's probably possible to make the same claim as with some Japanese pronouns that certain Korean pronouns pattern more with full noun phrases than with pronouns, but Korean definitely has 나 (1st familiar), 너 (2nd familiar) and 그 (3rd, but also identical with the demonstrative) which do not pattern like noun phrases. – jogloran Jun 27 '16 at 5:14
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    @jogloran Interesting, I have no knowledge of Korean, so I will have to double check that phrase in a book that I'm referring to. This might be my misinterpretation. Luckily, I do remember which book it was and whereabouts the Korean was mentioned. I just need to get to the office as the tablet's touchscreen is killing me.. :) – tum_ Jun 27 '16 at 5:31
  • @jogloran Right. I've found it but the book is in Russian, so I'll quote and translate: A.A.Leontyev "Путешествие по карте языков мира" ("Travel across the world languages' map") Russian Text "А в корейском языке, например, разграничивается только 1-е лицо и лицо не 1-е, для обозначения которого существует специальный суффикс — си." - Translation: "And in Korean language, for example, the distinction is only made between the first person and non-first person, which is denoted by a special suffix - si". Does it make any sense? – tum_ Jun 27 '16 at 6:20
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Vietnamese comes pretty close. Pronouns in conversation are almost all words for family members. The pronoun used depends on relative age. Speaking to a slightly older woman, for example, I would call myself em (little brother) and she would also call me em; she would call herself chị (big sister) and I would call her chị. So in a typical conversation there is no surface representation of person at all. There is no inflection so no question of verb agreement. I have even been in the situation of me and a Vietnamese speaker both calling each other and ourselves anh (big brother) when the age difference was not yet established.

The English translators of the highly amusing novel Dumb Luck by Vũ Trọng Phụng try to get the effect of this across by having characters speak to their family members using third person kinship terms instead of personal pronouns. I'm not sure whether it seems like that to Vietnamese speakers.

The only exception in ordinary circumstances is tôi / bạn. These are usually translated as I / you, but it's not quite as simple as that. Bạn means 'friend' and it is still used as a noun, so its second person meaning is derived from its primary meaning. I think someone told me that tôi originally meant 'servant' but I can't find any reference to that. Anyway, at a practical level, tôi / bạn do mean first and second person, but in my experience they are rarely used (I haven't been in many extremely formal situations). In most situations there is no need to use tôi / bạn for politeness as the age-relative pronouns express adequate respect. I have used tôi to address a mixed-age group; on the other hand, I can also speak as if addressing the oldest person by using the pronoun that expresses my age relative to that person's.

There are some more obscure pronouns or pronoun-like terms which are used in certain friendship and family situations and do have first- and second-person meanings (whether primary or derived I don't know). My wife has explained them to me but they are quite opaque to foreigners, who are at any rate unlikely to hear or use them. Wikipedia lists mình as a true first person pronoun but I can't agree. I think it's a reflexive with a derived first person meaning -- as in 'me, (my)self and I' -- and I have definitely heard it used as a second person reflexive, for example in an instruction in a meditation lesson: cơ thể của mình 'body belonging to self', i.e. 'your (own) body'.

I know the OP was about first person, but there is further evidence of the minimal appearance of person in Vietnamese in that the third person is represented only by the demonstrative ấy as in anh ấy 'he', literally 'that big brother'. On the other hand, there are words for 'it' and 'they'. Make of that what you will.

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  • This question isn't asking about frequency of use, but whether there are any language which truly have no first person. Lots of languages have pro-drop and infrequently overt pronouns. Vietnamese is clearly not an example of a language without the first person, with apparently at least 9 first person pronouns. – curiousdannii Aug 26 '19 at 1:43
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    I said that Vietnamese comes pretty close. My point is that person is marginal. It's nothing to do with pro-drop, non-overtness or frequency. There's nothing to drop. The pronouns that are used in the enormous majority of situations have no person. As I said, the pronouns given in Wikipedia as true pronouns are rarely used and at least two of them are derived from nouns. Apart from toi/ban, they should be in a marginal note, not at the start of the article. It's misleading. The ones people actually use are the kinship terms. This is a basic feature of the language, not some kind of ellipsis. – mango Aug 28 '19 at 13:48
  • All of that is irrelevant if there are true first person pronouns, no matter how frequently they're used. Lots of languages "come pretty close" if the criteria are so generous. – curiousdannii Aug 28 '19 at 13:54
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    What other languages have no representation of person in deep structure except in a handful of marginal cases? The important point here is that person is not being dropped in surface structure. It's not there at all. There is a categorical difference between something like Spanish, where the sujeto tacito can be reconstructed, and Vietnamese, where the subject intrinsically has no person. That is relevant, although it's not an absolutely pure example, which is pretty rare in linguistics. – mango Aug 30 '19 at 18:05
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The Turkic languages make usually a conversation without using the first person narrative, however they do have the first person. It's an agglunative language where they use suffixes to express themselves. Most of the time they speak in first person without ever using the "I" in the sentences. If they want to emphasize themselves in a conversation then the first person "I" will be used but then again only when they want to distinct themselves in a conversation

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    Many many languages are so-called "pro-drop" languages, where person is shown by affixes on the verb, and explicit pronouns are not used except for emphasis or contrast. I don't think that's what the OP was talking about. – Colin Fine Jun 3 '17 at 18:53
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    @ColinFine Is right, these languages don't often use the pronoun, but sentences always have a clearly defined person. Both "şu adama bir cevap yazayım" and "ben şu adama bir cevap yazayım" are clearly first person. I'm looking for a language that only says "ben bu adama cevap yazar" or "zatınız şu adama bir cevap yazar", referring to the speaker. – Superbest Jun 13 '17 at 23:12

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