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What languages have more than one word for the English 'we'?
March 26, 2014 8:13 PM   Subscribe

Are there any languages that have words that disambiguate the various possible meanings of the English 'we'? In English the 1st person plural pronoun 'we' (and its object counterpart 'us') can refer to groups 1) including only the speaker and the addressed person or persons, 2) including only the speaker and some further person(s) neither speaking nor being addressed but with whom the speaker claims a sort of representative power, and *not* including the addressee(s), or 3) including the speaker, the addresse(s) and some other people too. Are there any languages that have separate words for these distinct referential uses?

In Spanish one can distinguish between 1st person plural groups on the basis of gender with 'nosotros' and 'nosotras', but not on the basis of the sort of inclusion or exclusion of speaker, addressee, and bystanders I have in mind. German 'wir' and French 'nous' work like English, it seems.

Some examples of the different cases I have in mind: 1) Man says to wife, "We were destined to marry; it's us against the world." (We = the two of them and no one else.) 2) German diplomat says to Pakistani diplomat, "We are happy to agree to those export caps, if you will allow our planes to fuel at airport X." (We = German government but not the Pakistani diplomat.) 3) A Communist says to a comrade "We will rid the earth of bourgeois swine yet." (We = all the Communists.) Or, alternatively, for greater inclusion, idealistic person says "We are all human!" (We = everyone.)
posted by bertran to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, there are languages that do this. You may be interested in the Wikipedia entry on "Clusivity".
posted by spaltavian at 8:17 PM on March 26 [6 favorites]


Modern standard Chinese has 我们(wǒmen), much like the English "we", and 咱们(zánmen), which means something like "let's all of us" -- i.e., we, including the speaker and everyone being spoken to.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:30 PM on March 26


WALS feature 39A is basically this. Here's the chapter discussing this feature, which includes several examples of systems that are quite different from English.
posted by advil at 8:31 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]


I believe this has been discussed previously on askme. Perhaps someone will remember enough about the question to find it. Searching for "we" has not been productive.
posted by alms at 8:50 PM on March 26


Tagalog: Kami (exclusive we) and tayo (inclusive we)
posted by blue_beetle at 8:57 PM on March 26


Malay's like Tagalog too! 'Kami' is the 'we' that excludes the one being spoken to, and 'kita' includes everyone in the conversation.
posted by cendawanita at 9:05 PM on March 26


Japanese is a curious case because Japanese doesn't actually have pronouns, in the technical sense that Indo-European languages do.

Instead, it has a rich set of words which get used that way, but which don't quite mean the same kinds of things. For instance, instead of "you" they have words like English "honey" "buddy" "buster" "turkey" etc. (Not literally, but like that.)

The language isn't inflected and it doesn't have plurals either, exactly. There's a particle -tachi which can be appended to any reference to a person which means that it refers to all the people associated with the explicit one, for many meanings of "associated".

So bokutachi, oretachi, atashitachi, watashitachi, watakushitachi, uchitachi all translate loosely as "we" but they have significantly different connotations. (Also, wareware means "we" but it's fairly vanilla.)

...I guess this isn't quite what you were looking for. These different cases don't distinguish number, what they do is imply characteristics.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:06 PM on March 26


Quechua does this: nuqanchik (sometimes nuqanchis) is inclusive we, nuqayku is we excluding the person addressed
posted by dahliachewswell at 9:43 PM on March 26


Orthogonal to your question, Slovene distinguishes between the dual and the plural: whether it's us (two) or us (more than two).
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:41 PM on March 26


Tok Pisin has a pronoun system where one can distinguish between we two people, we three people, we more than three people, and inclusive and exclusive of all of the above.
posted by Gordafarin at 2:10 AM on March 27


It's not unusual at all - I recalled such a distinction is possible in many indigenous Australian languages, and I found this document, which happens to be on a relatively little-studied language (Gamilaraay), but the distinction certainly exists there - from section 5.2;
Ridley (1875:6) records what appear to be inclusive and exclusive dual first person pronouns:‘
ngulle - we two - thou and I
ngullina - we two - he and I
posted by Jimbob at 2:57 AM on March 27


I recall from a year of grad school in New Zealand that the Maori language had several different forms of goodbye. There was one for if you were leaving but others were staying, a different one for if everyone was leaving, and so on.
posted by JoannaC at 5:14 AM on March 27


Japanese is a curious case because Japanese doesn't actually have pronouns, in the technical sense that Indo-European languages do.

Instead, it has a rich set of words which get used that way, but which don't quite mean the same kinds of things. For instance, instead of "you" they have words like English "honey" "buddy" "buster" "turkey" etc. (Not literally, but like that.)


I find this to be rather remarkable as a twenty-year speaker of Japanese as a daily language. The word for pronoun is 代名詞 and we certainly have 一人称、二人称、and 三人称. The Japanese term for terms of endearment like "honey" and "buster" is 愛称.

Japanese is a good example responsive to the OP because of the use of 我(々) in terms like 我々日本人 ("we Japanese"). It is very common to encounter this construction e.g. "we Japanese think..." or "we Japanese like...". 我 is also used in the sense of 我が国 ("our country") and 我が社 ("our company").
posted by Tanizaki at 5:19 AM on March 27


Old English had a separate dual, wit ("we two"); however, no later forms derive from it.

In-depth discussion here.
posted by rada at 8:23 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


in French, "on" (examples 1+3) might be more inclusive than "nous" (example 2) depending on the way you frame your sentence (question vs assertion or intonation).
posted by nicolin at 9:00 AM on March 27


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