Many languages have two forms of the pronoun "we": an inclusive one and an exclusive one.

In the examples I am aware of, there is just one inclusive we, meaning "i/we and you (sg./pl.)". Are there languages having a more fine-grained distinction in inclusive pronouns, e.g., different forms for whether either the first person is singular or plural or the second person is so?

Are there languages with different forms of the exclusive we depending whether the excluded you is singular or plural?


1 Answer 1


There are languages that have a dual/plural number distinction as well as an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the first person, so there definitely could be separate inclusive first-person pronouns corresponding to "[me] and [you (sing)]" and "[me] and [you (plural)]". "Inclusive/Exclusive Distinction in Independent Pronouns", by Michael Cysouw (Chapter 39 in the World Atlas of Language Structures) says

There are many languages [with a 1st-person singular/inclusive/exclusive distinction] that also mark dual number in their pronouns. The basic and most common way to mark duality is exemplified in (4) by the pronouns from Lavukaleve (Solomons East Papuan; Solomon Islands). A special dual pronoun exists both for the inclusive and for the exclusive, both marked by a suffix -l.

(4) Lavukaleve (Terrill 2003: 170)
ngai ‘I’
el ‘exclusive, exactly two’
e ‘exclusive, more than two’
mel ‘inclusive, exactly two’
me ‘inclusive, more than two’

Another strategy is to mark duality only in the inclusive (Plank 1996: 130-131). In such paradigms, the dual inclusive aligns structurally with the singular pronouns, yet strictly speaking it is of course not singular in reference. The term minimal inclusive is used to refer to such a dual inclusive. Paradigms with a dual only in the inclusive are known as minimal-augmented structures (Thomas 1955). This lexical structure is exemplified in (5) by the pronouns from Southern Sierra Miwok (Penutian; California).

(5) Southern Sierra Miwok (Broadbent 1964: 93)
kan·i ‘I’
mah·i ‘exclusive, two or more’
ʔoti·me ‘inclusive, exactly two’
ʔotic·i ‘inclusive, more than two’

The opposite distribution of duality – dual in the exclusive but not in the inclusive – exists among the world’s languages, but it is extremely rare (Cysouw 2003: 221-222). In the present sample it is attested in the pronouns from Yagua (Peba-Yaguan; Peru; Payne and Payne 1990: 369-370). Just as exotic is the division attested in Gooniyandi (Bunaban; Australia). Here the inclusive dual is expressed by the same pronoun as the exclusive ngidi, but is different from the inclusive plural yaadi (McGregor 1990: 167-173). There are more cases like this among the world’s language, but not many (Cysouw 2003: 93).

I haven't heard of the other thing you mention ("different forms of the exclusive we depending whether the excluded you is singular or plural") and it sounds a bit unlikely to me--I have read that no language has a clusivity distinction between things like "you (all of whom I am addressing right now)" and "you (the ones I'm addressing right now and others that aren't here)" and that distinction sounds a bit similar to me.

My impression is that despite the name, the "exclusive" element of the "exclusive we" isn't necessarily the most salient part of its use. Its meaning can be explained to a speaker of a language that doesn't have the distinction as "we, excluding the second person", but I have the impression that a speaker of a language with the distinction would be just as likely or more likely to think of it in terms of "first person + third person(s)" rather than "first person plural excluding (some specific) 2nd person(s)".

For comparison, the third person pronouns also could be described as "excluding" the second person, but I haven't heard of languages that use different third-person pronouns depending on whether the addressed (and technically excluded) party is singular or plural.

I don't actually know whether any languages have this, though (pronouns that inflect based on the number of the listener, rather than or in addition to the number of the referent).

  • Surely the dual exclusive excludes a single person, and the plural exclusive excludes plural persons? Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 23:01
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    @GastonÜmlaut: no; the dual exclusive refers to the self and one third person, and the plural exclusive refers to the self and more than one third person. Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 23:17
  • Dual exclusive refers to oneself and a third person as opposed to oneself and the addressee, who is necessarily a single person and is the one excluded, hence the term 'first person dual exclusive'. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 13:15
  • @GastonÜmlaut: My understanding is that the addressee could be a single person or a group, just as in other contexts. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 13:16
  • Ok, perhaps this operates differently with different languages? Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 13:41

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