Variation in Plural Pronouns

David Gil gil at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Nov 6 17:59:44 UTC 1998

Michael's query is one that I've given plenty of thought to over the years.
Essentially, I haven't found any of the things that he's looking for, so my
own negative findings seem to be consistent with his.

> Form this viewpoint it is rather ackward to analyse 'we' as a first person
> plural. A first person plural would be a reference to a group of multiple
> speakers, but that is not what normally is intended. The meaning of
> plurality would fit, for instance, to a situation of a group of
> sport-enthousiast singing together 'we are the champions': then all of them
> would be speakers in unisono. Normally though, when someone says 'we', it
> is intenden to mean either 'I and you' (i.e. inclusive 'we') or 'I and some
> others' (i.e. exclusive 'we'). This exclusive 'we' is probably better
> characterised as an 'associative': it means 'the speaker and his
> associates', not 'multiple speakers'.
> For 'you (pl.)' both readings seem readily possible: 'you (pl.) can refer
> to a group of addressees (hence, a real 'second person plural') or it can
> refer to an addressee with his/hers associates. I am searching for a
> language that distinguishes these two meanings by different morphemes.
> Untill now I have not found any (and I have seen several hundreds), and I
> am inclined to say that this distinction is not grammaticalised in any
> human language. Can somebody prove me wrong, please?

A couple of years ago, some of us, primarily Edith Moravcsik, Grev Corbett and
myself, had extensive discussions of the associate plural construction.
During these discussions, the above observations about "we" and "you" were
brought up -- as I recall they came originally from Edith.

Since then, I spent a bit of time trying to find such distinctions overtly
expressed in several Malay / Indonesian dialects.  So far I haven't, but I'm
still not sure that they're not.  Since the details may not be of interest to
most ALT readers, I've put them in an appendix to this message.

> Another part of this query involves 'distributives' and 'collectives'.
> Several languages are described with a marking of whether an action is
> carried out collectively or seperately by the intended agents. I envisage
> the possibility of a language where inflectional pronominal marking is
> fused with these distributive/collective markers, resulting, for instance,
> in two different forms of 'we': one meaning 'we all together', and the
> other 'we all, but seperately'. Again, I have not found this distinction
> grammaticalised. Has anybody seen something like this?

Not me, and my PhD dissertation (UCLA 1982) was on distributives.  But with
regard to distributives, there's a very good reason why distributive pronouns
should be either rare or nonexistent.  Essentially, distributives usually
occur in NPs that are weak, in the sense of Milsark et al (corresponding
roughly to indefinite) -- and pronouns are clearly strong.  If you're
interested in the line of argumentation why this should be so, see my 1992

"Scopal Quantifiers: Some Universals of Lexical Effability", in M. Kefer and
J. van der Auwera eds., Meaning and Grammar, Cross-Linguistic Perspectives,
Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 303-345.


This is just a brief sketch of some of the things that I know, and some of the
things that are puzzling me about plural pronouns in Malay / Indonesian

In several dialects of Malay / Indonesian, plural pronouns are formed from
pronouns that are unmarked for number by the addition of the word _orang_
"person".  For example, in Kuala Lumpur Malay, _di at _ is "he/she/they", while
_di@ orang_ is "they".  In other dialects, the suffix undergoes
encliticization, so for example in Irian Indonesian _dia_ is "he/she/they",
while "they" is _dong_ (< _dia orang_).

Now in Irian Indonesian, _dong_ is also used to form associative plurals, eg.
_Michael dong_ "Michael and his associates".

And in some subdialects of Riau Indonesian, the form _dia orang_ "they" also
exists, but with an additional semantic denotation which I find difficult to
describe.  The best English translation that I can think of is "the guys".
Basically, it strikes me as some kind of "headless associative plural", that
is to say "X and his associates", or better "the associates", like an
associative plural, but without specification of a privileged element, or
leader.  Has anybody seen anything like this in other languages?

In Kuala Lumpur Malay (see above), _di@ orang_ also has these "strange"
usages, but in addition it is used as a "straightforward" 3rd person plural
pronoun, in contexts where, in the relevant subdialect of Riau Indonesian, a
simple _dia_, unmarked for number, would be used.

But Michael's query is about 1st and 2nd person pronouns.  In Kuala Lumpur
Malay, _kita_ is 1st person plural but unmarked for the inclusive/exclusive
distinction.  But add _orang_ and you get _kita orang_ -- 1st person
exclusive.  Unfortunately, either form can be understood as either associative
or non-associative.

And in second person, _kau_ is "you SG/PL", while _korang_ is "you PL" --
again, to the best of my knowledge, unmarked for associativity.

Since in Malay / Indonesian (like most other SE Asian languages) pronouns are
a semi-open class, this is far from being the whole story, and there's lots
that I haven't been able to figure out yet.  One of the things that puzzles me
is why, in Kuala Lumpur Malay, adding _orang_ should have one effect on 1st
person (marking exclusivity), but a different effect on 2nd and 3rd person
(marking plurality).  Other puzzles involve usages of _orang_ whose semantic
effect, if any, has so far escaped me.  For example, in Irian Indonesian,
_kita_ is "we incl/excl", and so is _kita orang_ (unlike Kuala Lumpur
Malay!).  And in a subdialect of the subdialect of Riau Indonesian that has
_dia orang_, there's also _kami orang_, formed from _kami_ "we excl" -- again,
I haven't been able to figure out the difference in meaning.  Maybe it has
something to do with associativity, but I'm not sure.

David Gil

Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Inselstrasse 22, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany

Telephone: 44-341-9952310
Fax: 44-341-9952119
Email: gil at

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