No word for "I" or "me" or "mine"

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A.S. sent in this quotation from Jeremy Fogel, “A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy”, Litigation Journal, Spring 2014:

Different cultures understand privacy in different ways. In societies in which large numbers of people typically live in close proximity to each other, often in very small spaces, very little truly is understood or expected to be private. There are entire languages without words for “I” or “me” or “mine.”

This is an interesting use of the word entire —  what would it mean for part of a language to lack first-person pronouns? I guess that the purely emphatic sense of wholly or entirely can be transferred from a predication to the subject noun:

Some Xs are entirely P → Some entire Xs are P

(Where entirely means "absolutely" or "emphatically"…)

Some web examples:

There are entire abandoned towns.
[I]n Edirne, liver is king. There are entire restaurants, known as cigercisi, devoted to the organ.
Some entire species are extinct.

Anyhow, Mr. Fogel doesn't give any reference for his assertion about languages lacking "words for 'I' or 'me' or 'mine'", but one language that's often cited in this connection is Japanese, e.g. here and here. As Wikipedia explains,

Some linguists suggest that the Japanese language does not have pronouns as such, since, unlike pronouns in most other languages that have them, these words are syntactically and morphologically identical to nouns. As others point out, however, these words function as personal references, demonstratives, and reflexives, just as pronouns do in other languages. […]

The common English personal pronouns, such as "I", "you", and "they", have no other meanings. However, most Japanese personal pronouns do. Consider for example two words corresponding to the English pronoun "I": 私 (watashi) also means "private" or "personal" and 僕 (boku) also means "manservant".

Wikipedia goes on to list 16 Japanese words for I/me, varying in register, politeness, status, and other nuances. Thus ore is

Frequently used by men. It can be seen as rude depending on the context. Establishes a sense of masculinity. Emphasizes one's own status when used with peers and with those who are younger or who have less status. Among close friends or family, its use is a sign of familiarity rather than of masculinity or of superiority. It was used by both genders until the late Edo period and still is in some dialects.

Vietnamese is something also discussed in a similar way — thus Bill Hayton, "Vietnam: Where saying 'I love you' is impossible", BBC News 8/28/2013:

It isn't because the Vietnamese are not passionate. Rather, there is no word for "I" or "you" in colloquial Vietnamese.  

People address each other according to their relative ages: "anh" for older brother, "chi" for older sister, "em" for younger sibling and so on. This is why Vietnamese quickly ask strangers how old they are so that they can use the appropriate pronoun and treat them with the correct amount of respect.

So a typical declaration of love might be: "Older brother loves younger sister."

But as Wikipedia explains, Vietnamese has "true pronouns" (including four versions of the first person singular, differing in formality, status, and intimacy) as well as "kinship terms" used as pronouns.

So there's no linguistic support for the idea that Japanese and Vietnamese people are unaware of the distinction between themselves and others, or are uninterested in being free from unsanctioned intrusion.

Maybe Fogel has some other languages in mind, but given the lack of supporting references, I suspect that he's just passing on an idea that he once heard or read.



  1. Smut Clyde said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    Maybe Fogel has some other languages in mind, but given the lack of supporting references, I suspect that he's just passing on an idea that he once heard or read.

    Are you telling me that Delany's "Babel-17" was *not* a documentary?

    [(myl) Hmm. Jeremy Fogel was a senior in high school in 1966, when Babel-17 was published. So that would fit.]

  2. JS said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

    Whole is often used like entire here; I was just now reflecting on You just ruined my whole day. Not "as opposed to just my morning," of course. Nice, [adj.]… / nice and [adj.] are also good: the pizza is nice and hot = "the pizza is hot, and that is pleasant"… ? That's why automated translation hard, I guess…

  3. Theo said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

    I understood "languages" in "entire languages" as meaning, essentially, "vocabularies", and "entire languages" as meaning "every word in the vocabulary" (is not "I", etc.). This is as opposed to the possibility that _most_ words in the vocabulary are not "I", "me", etc. Of course, most entries in the dictionary are not "I", etc., so perhaps every language satisfies the non-entire version.

    But I'm a mathematician, so when I say "most", I should make clear what measure I'm using. A natural measure is to weight words by their frequency. This is equivalent to understanding "language" as something more like "spoken corpus". Then it might be meaningful to ask whether "most" words are or are not "I", etc., and this could be different from "vanishingly few" words are "I", etc. (in mathematics, we have precise notions of "almost every" and "almost never), which could again be different from "absolutely all/none".

    Not that I think any actual language would witness such strange word frequencies. But that's a posteriori knowledge, and doesn't follow a priori from the definition of "language".

  4. David Feuer said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 1:45 am

    I believe it is common for signed languages to eschew pronouns, per se, in favor of "indexing", in which the most important (implicit) distinction is not person or gender but presence/absence. This seems rather clearly to be the case in ASL, but I believe it goes beyond that.

    [(myl) As this entry for "'I' or 'me'" in an ASL dictionary indicates, the first-person reference may be an instance of the more general phenomenon of indexing, but it is also certainly an unambiguous reference to the signer and not to anyone else. So it hardly supports the quasi-whorfian argument about such languages lacking the the whole concept of ego as opposed to other. And I think it would be surprising to find that native ASL speakers have ideas about privacy that are very different from those of other Americans.]

  5. Rubrick said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 1:58 am

    That use of "entire" in indeed intriguing. It sounds perfectly natural; I can easily imagine saying it myself. In this instance, it seems to call attention to just how vast a language is, such that to find no such words at all among all those words is truly remarkable. But, of course, English has almost as few words for "I", "me", and "mine" as those other (purported) languages.

    This caused me to think of a silly question. There have been entire books written in English in which the letter E never appears. But what book has the smallest positive ratio of E's to non-E's?

  6. Smut Clyde said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 4:23 am

    The Whackyweedia page on "Babel-17" concludes with a short list of science fiction novels and stories which rely to some extent on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a plot device, but it is far from comprehensive.* Any additions to the list?

    * No mention of the1964 story, Four Brands of Impossible! Really, Wikipedia.

  7. V said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 5:21 am

    Off-topic, and spoilerific: In Delany's Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, "she" is the default pronoun regardless off gender and "he" refers to someone the speaker is attracted to.

    [(myl) "'She was probably male'" (4/6/2014) discusses the use of a variant of this pattern in Ann Leckie's novel Ancillary Justice.]

  8. richardelguru said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 7:00 am

    "There are entire abandoned towns."
    They haven't disintegrated through the ravages of Old Man Entropy yet?

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 7:29 am

    Japanese has hundreds of words for I/me!

    Joking aside, Korean is similar in that at least dozens of words can be used as a first person pronoun. The basic first person pronoun is 나 na, but there is also the polite (self-lowering) form 저 jeo, and the formal 본인 bonin; formal/antiquated, self-lowering 소인 soin; and some rare literary forms like 오인 oin and 여 yeo. There are also more specific words like 짐 jim or 과인 gwain (by a monarch), 신 sin (by a courtier to monarch), or 필자 pilja (writer referring to self). Look up first person pronouns in a Korean dictionary to see plenty of more examples. Many of these are self-lowering forms, sort of like "your humble servant" in English.

  10. MN said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 10:19 am

    So, if these Japanese "pronouns" are "really" nouns, does that mean they're subject to Principle C? Or is it like English "the bastard", which obeys Principle C when used literally or semi-literally and B when used as an epithet?

  11. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 11:22 am

    Wikipedia said: The common English personal pronouns, such as "I", "you", and "they", have no other meanings.

    Well it depends what you mean by 'other'. You, for instance, in my last sentence, means something like 'a person' – very different from its meaning in most sentences.

    Or take an example that was pointed out to me yesterday. There's a standard chant among British and Irish football (soccer) fans – it's heard at pretty much every game. It goes (to the chorus of Go West, by The Village People):

    "You're sh*t, and you know you are" [repeat about 500 times]

    Interestingly, the meaning of 'you' changes twice in this single sentence – from (1) the opposing team to (2) the opposing fans, and then back to (1) again.

    (True, the singers doubtless wouldn't balk at the idea that their opposing fans are also 'sh*t', but the salient interpretation is that it's their team/club.)

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 6:21 pm

    Pflaumbaum: I don't think there's a distinction in that context between the team and the fans. People talk about the team they support as "we".

    This is one more thing the Village People have to answer for.

  13. Aaron Toivo said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

    My sense of "There are entire Xes that Y" constructions is overwhelmingly that the "entire" or "whole" is serving to contrast the size or extent of X against that of Z, where Z is the much smaller unit that had been under discussion.

    Thus describing these words as functioning "purely empatic"ally just feels off the mark. What's being emphasized is surely not the following noun, or even its size, but rather the gulf between its size and that of Z.

    So when I see examples like "There are entire abandoned towns." I can only understand this to be in reference to a previous mention of abandoned buildings, or possibly villages, where of course these are far smaller units than a town is. Meanwhile, "Some entire species are extinct." is hard to come up with such a contrast for, which is consistent with it feeling so borderline-grammatical to me; what was its context? Where did you even find it? (Google's sole hit for that sentence is this very LL post.)

  14. dainichi said,

    April 30, 2014 @ 11:27 pm

    I asked a question regarding languages lacking personal pronouns on a couple of years ago. Might interest somebody:

    Seems in Malaysian, personal pronouns are an even more open class than in Japanese.

  15. maidhc said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 4:28 am

    In Irish, certain words cannot be expressed as possessives. For example, you can't say "my money". You have to say "my share of the money". Also with food and clothes.

    Is this something that dates back to the egalitarian days of the ancient Celt? Or just a peculiarity of language?

  16. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 5:07 am

    @ Jerry –

    You're certainly right that you refers to the team, in a similar way to we – but only the first and third yous.

    The second refers to the fans alone. This is clear from the fact that the chant isn't only sung at games, it's also sung between rival fans outside the ground, at the pub etc.

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

    Swedish uses en annan "someone else" for "I." Nowadays it implies ironic self-deprecation.

  18. Levantine said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

    Pflaumbaum, I have to agree with Jerry Friedman here. Teams and their supporters form a collective unit in such contexts. Why else would fans say things like "We were crap tonight" when speaking of a poor performance by the players? The three yous in the chant all refer to the same team-fans entity.

  19. David Feuer said,

    May 1, 2014 @ 9:19 pm

    [(myl) As this entry for "'I' or 'me'" in an ASL dictionary indicates, the first-person reference may be an instance of the more general phenomenon of indexing, but it is also certainly an unambiguous reference to the signer and not to anyone else. So it hardly supports the quasi-whorfian argument about such languages lacking the the whole concept of ego as opposed to other. And I think it would be surprising to find that native ASL speakers have ideas about privacy that are very different from those of other Americans.]

    I don't make any Whorfian argument in that regard, although I believe you are quite wrong about cultural privacy expectations being the same. Certainly indexing can be used unambiguously to refer to specific persons present, but that doesn't seem to make indexing signs into pronouns, and in a sense it makes them different: indexing can refer unambiguously to specific present persons other than the signer, whereas pronouns often must be supplemented by either context or gestures. That an English pronoun appears with a translation in an ASL dictionary also does not seem to be strong evidence; the makers of such dictionaries seek to find closest equivalents, and clearly pronouns and indexing serve similar purposes in somewhat different fashions.

    [(myl) I'm certainly not suggesting that all cultures (or even all people in one society) have the same expectations of privacy, just that the linguistic patterning of ways to referring to one's self is not a reliable indication of such expectations. And the question of whether Japanese or Vietnamese or ASL has pronouns, in some technical sense of that word, is doubly irrelevant.]

  20. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

    @ Levantine –

    "We were crap tonight" refers to the team, not the fans or the team-club-fans complex. Or at least that's the salient interpretation – and it's perfectly possible to say something like "We were crap tonight, but the fans were fantastic and the club handled the whole leaked teamsheet debacle with a lot of dignity".

    It's possible for you/we to refer to a unified entity, I agree. But the context can also make clear that it's one or the other.

  21. Levantine said,

    May 2, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    Pflaumbaum, I would say that "We were crap tonight" refers to "our" side — us and the team together, regardless of who was doing the actual playing (if supporters are willing to bask in the glory of their team's victories, they also have to be willing to share the blame in the event of a defeat). It's the same "we" that people use when speaking of their countries, even when referring to things that they may have no personal involvement in ("We have the best hospitals in the world"/"Our weather is horrible"). And the "you" in the chant is the same "you" that people throw around when castigating ordinary people from a particular country for the actions of that country's government ("You're the ones who started the war", etc.).

  22. Martin said,

    May 3, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

    I am a bit late to this, but concerning the claim w/r/t "I", "me" etc., Ana Wierzbicka actually has it as on of her semantic primes. In her "Semantics: Primes and Universals", she writes (mistakes all mine):

    "In particular, there are no languages in the world which would be "free" of words for I and YOU (in the sense of THOU). This is not to say that claims have never been made – not only in poetry, but also in scholarly literature – that languages "free of personal pronouns" do exist, but notions of this kind have never been substantiated and they must be regarded as fanciful."

    She specifically refers, as you do, to "South-east Asian languages," for which this claim is often made. Concerning the much more restricted usage of these pronouns in some of these languages, she notes that this is a question of pragmatics, not semantics:

    "In a society where references to oneself are in many situations expected to be accompanied by expressions of humility or inferiority, a bare "I" becomes pragmatically marked, and it must be interpreted as either very intimate or very rude. But this pragmatic markedness should not be confused with demonstrable semantic complexity."

    Also, Humboldt was already aware of this, it seems (references omitted):

    "The universality of I and YOU (brilliantly guessed by Wilhelm Humboldt, in the early days of typological investigations, and reasserted by Boas) tallies well with the indefinable nature of these two concepts: while attempts to define them (e.g. in terms of "speaker" and "addressee") have often been undertaken, these attempts have never been successful."

    Later, when she discusses the universals of time "WHEN", "BEFORE", AFTER", she seems to take a more general turn against variants of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

    "As pointed out by Keesing, time tends to be exotized in Western accounts of non-Western languages in cultures. The best example of this exoticitation is the account of the Hopi language given by Whorf, who claimed that the Hopi conception of tuime is radically different from that reflected in European languages. (…)
    But Whorf's ideas about Hopi have now been refuted in a careful study of the Hopi language by Malotki, whose overall conclusion is that "Whorf's claim about Hopi time conception being radically different from ours does not . . . not hold".

    Back to what Wierzbicka sees as a confusion of pragmatical with semantic markedness, you probably remember that she was also one of the commenters on Daniel Everett's paper "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã" (you covered the paper, or at least the general controversy). There, she sees a confusion of syntactic extension with semantic intension (of a semantic universal), if I understand it correctly, and again argues against what she sees as exotication:

    "Concepts such as “every,” “most,” and “few” are far from universal, but “all” does occur in all languages, and Pirahã is evidently no exception. Everett does not see this: his interlineal gloss for hiaitíihí hi ’ogi ‘all the [Pirahã] people’ is “Pirahã people he big.” The fact that the same segment used in one syntactic frame can mean “big” and in another “all” misleads him into thinking that there is no word for “all” in Pirahã—a conclusion clearly contradicted by his own data. The concept of polysemy is a basic tool in semantic analysis, and rejecting it altogether leads to ludicrous results such as the following “literal” gloss: “My bigness ate [at] a bigness of fish, nevertheless there was a smallness we did not eat.” In using such glosses, Everett exoticizes the language rather than identifying its genuinely distinctive features. To say that ti ’ogi means, literally, “my bigness” (rather than “we”) is like saying that in English to understand means, literally, “to stand under.” To deny that hi ’ogi means “all” is to make a similar mistake."

    Everett, of course, vigorously disagreed with Wierzbicka in his rejoinder.

  23. Aradheya said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 6:57 am

    I agree with your points of view. There are many entire language without words like I , ME , MINE , YOU . Wikipedia explains true pronouns of singular sentence as well as kinship words as perfect pronouns . Many visitors of this site can simply understand your way of writing . Keep sharing such helpful language articles .

  24. Kari Vo said,

    July 27, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

    Concerning Vietnamese–One can indeed say "I love you," and with more pronouns than English, rather than fewer! The relationship terms (e.g. anh/chi/em/ong/ba etc) are understood by context and by the presence or absence of a third-person marker. So, Anh yeu em (said by my husband) means "I (person in older brotherly relationship status to you) love you (person a bit younger)." My return "I love you" would be reversed, Em (younger person) yeu anh (person in older brotherly type relationship). But if either of us were talking about others (for example, "he loves her"), we would mark this with ay, so: "Anh ay yeu em ay." "Anh ay" is literally "that guy" or "that him".

    There are about a zillion of these semi-pronouns, and the one you choose for yourself depends on the relative age, status, and relationship between you and the person you are addressing. Thus you would use one term for yourself ("I," chau) when addressing your grandmother, and in the same conversation she would use that same pronoun "chau" to say "you". But if you then turn to address your younger cousin, you'll be using a different pronoun for yourself to say "I".

    I think it's the fact that the pronoun shifts with each conversational situation that may be throwing people. That, and the fact that the pronoun means either "I" or "You" depending on which person in the dialogue is speaking. But it is certainly not the case that Vietnamese are talking to each other in the third person all the time!

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