Many languages have pronouns that reflect gender, and some have pronouns that reflect relative social hierarchy or formality. (To pick an example I actually know, in Dutch the second person singular polite/formal is u vs jij or je for informal.) I understand that other languages may use particles to do this.

My question is whether any languages mark social features other than gender and status. For transparency, what motivates this question is the recent meta-discussion in SE about pronoun use. This discussion was in English and largely driven by gender. I began to wonder about the other categories that we try to protect, e.g. race, colour, religion, national origin, disability and so on. Do they ever show up in grammar? (Of course they show up as nouns and adjectives.)

There are (I'm told) languages with different pronouns for degrees of kinship relation, so there might be a language that distinguishes "you-my-neighbour" from "you-the-stranger" or "you-foreigner". Is there a language that distinguishes "you-my-coreligionist" from "you-unbeliever" or "you-heretic"?

Perhaps there are languages that use different pronouns based on marriage status?

I've also seen the Wikipedia article on Australian Aboriginal kinship. There are certainly different collective nouns for members of these groups. I can't tell if there are pronouns though.

If you'll extend social distinctions to include relations to non-humans, then even English shows this, since one may refer to animals with "it" rather than "he" or "she".

I've seen this SE question, where the answers mention only "social status", and I'm aware that linguistic gender can also be used for categorizations other than male/female (e.g. animate). The non-human distinction shows up here, too.

If there are positive examples, I regret that it may be difficult to answer this question without providing examples that might be offensive. I hope that all who read this will assume good intent.

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    My only issue with this is, what doesn't count as "status"? There are certain languages where the way you speak gets totally upended when you're interacting with your in-laws, but is that not still a "status" distinction of some sort? If you can clarify that, people might be able to give you a better answer.
    – Draconis
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 15:09
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    I see your point: e.g. a "heretic" might have lower status than one who shares your religious beliefs. But I'm looking for forms than specifically refer to religion, etc, not abstract social importance/power/respect.
    – Jim Davis
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 18:48
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    Age relative to speaker is common in Austronesian languages, e.g, Acehnese. This can be thought of as "status", in a society where age is respected. But everything can be thought of as "status"; it's not exactly a well-defined term.
    – jlawler
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 2:36
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    Numerous Australian languages have trirelational pronouns and kin terms, which encode the relationships between 3 individuals. Here's a chapter that discusses these terms: Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 21:39
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    Suggestion: One way of defining status for the purpose of this question is that most languages encodes strict "above/below" status distinctions while OP are more interested in non-hierarchical status distinctions. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 7:59

9 Answers 9


One interesting marker of social distinctions is an avoidance register, a special way of speaking to certain family members. You might also hear this called mother-in-law language or hlonipha/isihlonipho, after some of the most famous examples.

In general, languages with this feature have a special, usually very restricted register (=way of speaking), with a limited vocabulary and replacements for many common words. This register is only used with certain specific family members or groups of family members (rather than anyone with high status): for example, in Zulu, married women traditionally use hlonipha when addressing their fathers-in-law, but not with their own biological fathers.


Niger-Congo languages tend to have a system of noun classes, somewhat similar to gender in Indo-European languages (in terms of adjectives having to agree with nouns, for instance), but consisting of several categories of entities instead.

In Swahili, the ki-vi class, while mainly used for inanimate objects, can be used, quoting Wiktionary, "for things which have some (but not all) of the qualities of another thing, which are the object of contempt or fear, or which have a physical defect (including people with disabilities)". Wikipedia gives examples for the nouns meaning "a cripple", "a blind person" and "a deaf person".

Indeed, this may not seem very politically correct to us, as you mentioned in your question, but we don't make the rules for other languages. I don't really know if pronouns also have to agree with the class system, but I suspect you probably wouldn't refer to a disabled person with a "ki-vi"-specific pronoun when talking to them, so this answer may not qualify as the kind of thing you actually wanted to know about... but, well, here it is anyway.


Analogous to the word "maestro" in Western classical music to refer to conductors, Hindustani Classical music has "ustad" and "pandit" to address virtuoso performers. While either of them can be considered a translation of "maestro", in practice, "ustad" is used exclusively for Muslim virtuosi, and "pandit" for Hindu virtuosi. The titles in Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri- Raag Mishra Pilu are typical examples of this convention.

In Indian societies, it is considered rude to address these people by name, so in vocative situations and in the third-person, they are usually called "ustadsaab", "ustadji", or "panditji".

To sum it up, their social status and their religion, both, get marked in these titles.

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    Interesting. Is this in Hindi, Urdu, or Hindustani English, or all? If I am speaking of such a virtuoso to someone else, can I use ustad or pandit the same way I'd use a pronoun in English, or is the more like a title? How does this differ from, for example, referring to a respected professor as "Professor Plum" rather than simply by name, or for that matter titles of nobility such as "Lord Rutherford"?
    – Jim Davis
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 18:54
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    This convention is followed in both, Hindi and Urdu. Ustad and pandit cannot be used as pronouns, but in conversation, if you're a student of such a person, it's customary to omit their name and just use the title. I think it's a similar deal in English where if you're part of his orchestra, it's propriety to refer to the conductor in the third person as just "maestro" rather than "maestro Harnoncourt". I can't say this with much confidence, but I think noblemen got addressed in an analogous manner by their servants, "The lord will have duck for dinner".. or some such construct.
    – prash
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 19:54
  • In Hindi in formal occasions often one uses the second person pronoun ‘aap’ when talking about a respected individual, instead of using the third person pronoun, even if that individual wasn’t even present. But this is another instance of status Pronoun, I guess? Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 21:43
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    But this is not a pronoun, it is an occupation-based title or honorific. English has "doctor", "nurse" or "professor", for examples off the top of my head. If you have a doctor treating you, you're quite likely to call them "doctor" instead of reading their name tag. Different languages have other examples of this - German uses "engineer" as a title, and Japanese are very respectful to their "sensei" (teachers) - but it still doesn't make it a pronoun as per the question.
    – Graham
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 1:01
  • @Graham There are multiple, overlapping questions. I have answered one of them.
    – prash
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 7:33

English "honorifics" can denote marital status (for women only) - Mrs. vs Miss. (The newer Ms. marks the addressee as a woman without specifying marital status. All men are Mr. regardless of marital status. I've seen the newer Mx. as a gender-neutral honorific.)

Dr. is very common (for doctors). I have seen a few others that denote specific professions but I don't know how common they are. In the US they are rare.

It could be argued the original question excludes these - honorifics are grammatically a bit odd. They're clearly not pronouns. The dictionaries I checked show them as nouns. But they more commonly function like adjectives - in the sentence "Ms. Whittaker went to the store.", the honorific Ms. further describes or modifies the subject Whittaker.

In any case, they are examples of the language marking other social distinctions, albeit in a different way. I don't know any other languages well, but a little searching shows that similar honorifics exist in many.

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    A similar honorific in English is "Sir" for British knights.
    – dan04
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 6:22
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    @dan04 and "Dame" for an equivalent for women. I'd argue these are essentially "social status" markers already included by the OP. Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 7:09
  • Boys/Young men were often called "Master"
    – user13665
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 11:39
  • What are you referring to in your second paragraph? I can't immediately figure what you're thinking of Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 16:05
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    Now what is the gender-neutral form of Sir/Dame? ;-)
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 7:50

If birthplace is a social distinction, then the written Japanese language marks it rigidly. I refer to the syllabic kana, not the logographic kanji where one character symbolizes a word or meaning. Syllabic kana uses two different alphabets: hiragana for native Japanese words and names, and katakana for foreign words and names.

I’m no expert on the Japanese language so others may have more to add, but it is my understanding that the Japanese strictly follow this convention in spelling names as a social distinction between native born Japanese and everyone else, including foreign born persons of Japanese descent.

Several years ago I read an article about a woman of Japanese descent who was born in Brazil, where Japanese laborers immigrated some generations ago and whose descendants remain in Brazil to this day. All of her ancestors married within the Japanese community in Brazil, so she had a Japanese name and was genetically 100% Japanese and indistinguishable from a native born Japanese person until she spoke Japanese – haltingly and with a Brazilian accent. Her goal was to return to her roots and live in Japan as a Japanese woman, but the katakana spelling of her Japanese name would forever identify her as “foreign” and not “real Japanese.” Once there in Japan, she had other challenges to overcome, such as her lively gestures and demeanor, which were more Brazilian than Japanese. She tried to adapt, but she finally gave up on the idea of integrating into Japanese society because of the “foreign” label implied in the spelling of her name.


Malay and Bahasa Indonesia have two separate plural pronouns for the English pronoun "we":

  • "kami" - "we", excluding the person that you are addressing
  • "kita" - "we", including the person that you are addressing

You are asking for "social features", so perhaps this is borderline, but it has clear social implications which of the two words is being used.

As TRiG noted, this is known as "clusivity" (Wikipedia) and is present in a wider range of languages.

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    This is known as clusivity.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 10:27

Chinese has the pronouns:

(tā), third-person pronoun for God or gods

It's used for God in the Bible, e.g. (traditional Chinese):

3 萬物都是藉著造的,受造之物沒有一樣不是藉著造的。 (bible.com)
3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

There's possibly also (second-person).

(tā), third-person pronoun for animals

(For comparison "he" is and "she" is and "it" is .)

I don't know much about the history of these pronouns, only that they're very rarely used in mainland China nowadays.

There's some questions on Chinese.SE that discuss these pronouns, e.g.:

  1. Pronounciation of pronouns
  2. Is there any specifically masculine character for 他

Also I should mention the pronouns the second-person pronouns meaning "you":

(nǐ) vs. (nín)

The pronoun 您 is more formal and revering, suitable for teachers, bosses, etc.


Austronesian languages often use different registers depending on the relative social status of the two speakers. A good example of this is Javanese. Javanese historically has three registers and modern standard Javanese has codified two. Take a look at the section Basic Vocabulary and Registers section. "Ngoko" is the the formal register and "Krama" is the formal register. As you can see even the basic vocabulary is quite different. However, on the street it is not so cut and dry. There is often a great deal of mixing between registers due to poor education of young Javanese speakers.


Although this does not relate to social features, Japanese makes a distinction between animate and inanimate when it comes to "existing": ある (aru) means "to exist" (as in, "there exists") for inanimate things, while いる (iru) means the same but for animate beings:

机の上にぺんがある。(tsukue no ue ni pen ga aru)

There is a pen on the table.

庭に猫がいる。(niwa ni neko ga iru)

There is a cat in the garden.

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