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

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
  • @vin - Absolutely no person in verbs, in those languages verbs are not marked for person in any way. – Yellow Sky Jul 20 '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

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.

  • 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

Sorry, guys, I still don't have enough Rep. to use the Comment option, so have to use Answer.

I've found the question interesting and re-read a couple of books today searching for the answer. The books a 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). UPD.: As pointed out by @jogloran in the comments, the above statement is probably false. There is some misunderstanding regarding the Korean honorific suffix "si".

  • 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

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
  • @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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