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Studying some languages I noticed that many European languages have a first, second and third person.

In a philosophical sense, I was wondering how it shapes reality, but that's off topic here. What I want to ask is:

Do you know any source or have an answer for the origins of those forms?


I suppose it can be traced back to Indo European languages but don't know anything about indo Languages.

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As far as the personal pronouns in Indo-European languages go, we don't really know where they come from. They already existed in Proto-Indo-European, which is the oldest stage we can reconstruct with any certainty. Some people try to reconstruct further back, but none of these theories are widely accepted, and all the proposals I've seen include personal pronouns in those earlier stages too.

That aside, though, personal pronouns seem fairly common in the languages of the world. The Bantu languages of Africa have a person distinction that's very similar to the Indo-European one, for example, and I believe the Semitic languages do too. It's just plain useful to be able to talk about "me" versus "you" versus "them".

One alternative, as found in e.g. Japanese and Vietnamese, involves having quite a lot of different words (or even an open class) that are usable as pronouns. But in practice, once a conversation is going, any individual speaker will tend to use a pronoun for "me" and another pronoun for "you". And it's easy to see how this system could get reduced to a straightforward first person, second person, third person distinction over time (potentially with different fossilized levels of formality, as in German).

Another alternative is just using names everywhere. But this gets unwieldy, which is why pronouns were invented in the first place.

As for where individual pronouns come from in any individual language: it depends! Sometimes they come from demonstratives: "that man" → "him", for instance (as in Latin is/ea/id). Sometimes they come from metonymy: the Japanese pronoun お宅 otaku comes from a respectful phrase for "your house". This is generally referred to as "semantic bleaching".

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  • Thanks! Although I think it is useful because of our culture, not because * it is *. At least partially.
    – user21739
    Jun 2 '18 at 17:48
  • @santimirandarp Also added a note about where they come from. I don't know if I'd consider it a cultural thing: I certainly don't know of any language anywhere in the world that lacks pronouns entirely.
    – Draconis
    Jun 2 '18 at 17:56
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    In Malay there are varieties of first and second person (inclusive and exclusive) pronouns, as well as an open third person pronoun class, plus special generic 'you' as in for your car. But use is optional and frequently ignored, and the most common pronoun -- first, second, and third person, by survey -- is Zero. I.e, pronouns get skipped and everybody understands them from context. Isn't that fun?
    – jlawler
    Jun 2 '18 at 21:56
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Good question.

All pronouns common in European languages (save Basque, Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish, and Lapp) date back to Proto-Indo-European, e.g. I < **egho* 'I', me < **me* 'me', thou < **tu* 'thou', thee < **te* 'thee', etc.

These pronouns have been preserved in more descendant languages than any other word. For pronoun root *m- '1st person non-subject', I have found it in 480 out of the 482 IE languages and dialects for which I obtained data.

Pronoun roots *m- '1st person' and *t- '2nd person' are found in a cluster of language families covering northern Eurasia (Indo-European, Uralic-Yukaghir, Altaic, Gilyak, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Eskimo-Aleut, as well as, somewhat faintly, in Nippo-Korean). Mostly preserved in all descendants as well.

Their massive preservation in the last 5,000 to 10,000 years makes them very unlikely independent innovations in these families. Most likely they are the traces of a more ancient language, Proto-Eurasiatic. Greenberg wrote two splendid books about this linguistic phylum (Stanford University Press, 2000 and 2002).

If you are interested I wrote an essay about the ultimate origin of personal pronouns, which are very special words (changing referent with each speaker), when syntax first evolved and it began to be "unwieldy," as the first answer rightly says, to use personal names to indicate who's doing what to whom.

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Interesting question. The shape of pronouns goes further back in time than the methods of historical linguistics reach. There are two major groupings of languages that are not demonstrably related, but sharing striking similarities in their pronouns: languages with M-T-pronouns distributed over Europe and Northern Asia, and languages with N-M-pronouns in the Americas. Note that English is not in the M-T-group because it has lost its original t-pronoun thou for you.

And here's another intresting map: M-pronouns in the first and second person singular all four possible cases occur, and they show some geographical clustering.

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