English distinguishes interrogative pronouns "who" referring to humans and "what" referring to non-humans, and the same distinction is made in Lushootseed, any Bantu languages that I've encountered, Saami, and so on. There might be further subdivisions for grammatical class, number and so on, but as far as I know every language distinguishes at least a wh-pronouns for humans and one for non-humans. Do any languages have a single entity-referring interrogative pronoun, i.e. are "who" and "what" every merged? (Gender or noun-class distinctions suffice to distinguish "who" and "what", when correlated with human/non-human, such as in Ancient Greek).

  • 1
    In most IE languages the difference between who and what is purely one of gender within a single paradigm. Are Greek τίς and τί one word or two? (They're indistinguishable in the genitive and dative, and in all cases in the dual.)
    – Cairnarvon
    Jan 24, 2021 at 6:51
  • 2
    In most Slavic languages the line between ‘who’ and ‘what’ lies not between humans and non-humans, but between animate and inanimate. In Russian, bacteria (sometimes, микроб is always animate, бактерия isn't always animate) and always animals, dolls, robots, gods, spirits, and deadmen (мертвец) are considered animate, so ‘who’ is actually applied to them.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 24, 2021 at 22:06

2 Answers 2


In (Middle) Egyptian, the same interrogative is used for animate and inanimate referents: ptr hieroglyphic form of ptr (earlier pw tr, later pty).

It's possible, of course, that there were different vocalizations for the "who" and "what" meanings. But if so, we might expect different determinatives to distinguish them, and we don't see that; the determinative is always A2 (for "asking").

Some examples taken from Hoch:

ptr ḏdt n.j nb.j?
What did my lord say to me? (Sinuhe 565)

ḏd.jn Ḥm.f "pty st, Ḏdj, tm rdj(w) mꜣn.j tw?"
Then His Majesty said, "What is this, Djedi, not letting me see you?" (Westcar 8, 10ff (The Tale of Djedi))

pty sy tꜣ Rd-ḏdt?
Who is she, this Red-djedet? (Westcar 9, 8ff (The Tale of Djedi))

pw-tr rf sw? snf pw pr m ḥnnw n(y) Rꜥ…
What, then, is this? It is the blood that emerged from the penis of Ra… (Book of the Dead 17)

"jnk sf, rḫ.kwj swꜣw." pw-tr rf sw? jr sf, Wsjr pw. jr dwꜣw, Rꜥ pw…
"I am Yesterday and I know Tomorrow." Who, then, is this? For Yesterday, that is Osiris; for Tomorrow, that is Ra… (Book of the Dead 17)


Urdu does fail to distinguish between "who" and "what". Urdu uses "ye" for both.

ye kia hain = what is this
ye kon hain = who is this

  • 4
    That's incorrect. I don't know much about Urdu, but I searched it and it seems that the Urdu word for 'what' is kia and that for 'who' is kon. Ye means 'this', not 'what' or 'who'. I don't know but I'll wait for someone else to correct me. Jan 24, 2021 at 8:11
  • @JoyfulSadness that certainly seems to match the sentences given by none
    – Tristan
    Jan 25, 2021 at 10:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.