Receptive multilingualism

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In the latest The Atlantic, Michael Erard describes a fascinating linguistic phenomenon:  "The Small Island Where 500 People Speak Nine Different Languages:  Its inhabitants can understand each other thanks to a peculiar linguistic phenomenon".

The article begins:

On South Goulburn Island, a small, forested isle off Australia’s northern coast, a settlement called Warruwi Community consists of some 500 people who speak among themselves around nine different languages. This is one of the last places in Australia—and probably the world—where so many indigenous languages exist together. There’s the Mawng language, but also one called Bininj Kunwok and another called Yolngu-Matha, and Burarra, Ndjébbana and Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, Torres Strait Creole, and English.

None of these languages, except English, is spoken by more than a few thousand people. Several, such as Ndjébbana and Mawng, are spoken by groups numbering in the hundreds. For all these individuals to understand one another, one might expect South Goulburn to be an island of polyglots, or a place where residents have hashed out a pidgin to share, like a sort of linguistic stone soup. Rather, they just talk to one another in their own language or languages, which they can do because everyone else understands some or all of the languages but doesn’t speak them.

The name for this phenomenon is “receptive multilingualism”, something I'd never heard of before reading Erard's article.  Upon first learning of receptive multilingualism, it seemed improbable.  How could a community use as many as nine different languages?  Upon giving it more thought, however, the probability that members of a group living in a zone where many languages are in daily contact would develop passive fluency in several of them began to make sense.

From my own experience of people living in an environment where two languages are in common use, say English and Mandarin where English is the dominant language of society, I have observed that children will understand almost everything their parents say in Mandarin but answer them in English, and may barely be able to say anything in Mandarin beyond a few halting phrases.

In Singapore, where English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Tamil, and other languages are spoken regularly, people pick up a considerable amount of ability to understand bits and pieces of many of these languages, but can usually only speak one of them well.  On the other hand, they have developed a special type of English, called Singlish, that includes fragments of all the languages that are in frequent use in Singapore.

All of this leads me to conclude that, in general, passive recognition of languages is easier than active production, and that this holds true both with speech and writing.


[h.t. Chiu-kuei Wang]


  1. Laura Morland said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 6:20 am

    Goodness, I thought that it was a truth universally acknowledged that "passive recognition of languages is easier than active production." Except for rank beginners, who are able to express only a few words or phrases in a language, I would argue that it is exponentially easier to understand a language than to speak it!

    However, the reason I'm leaving a comment is simply to share my anecdotal experience: I've been speaking French for sixteen years now (I used to live in France full-time, and now half the year), and have many francophone friends and acquaintances with whom I've never exchanged a word of English. Yet my most enjoyable conversations in France are with the Parisian-born husband of a close American friend. A former English teacher, his level of English is very high, but he's more comfortable speaking French. As a late-in-life learner of French, I'll always be more comfortable in English. And so often, at dinner, he and I will slip into long conversations where we're each speaking our native language.

    It's a delightful feeling; neither of us is at a linguistic disadvantage, and we can express ourselves fully without the need to hesitate in choosing the correct word or expression. However, this man is the sole person with whom I am able to enjoy this lovely experience, for I don't happen to know any other French people whose mastery of English is such that I wouldn't have to worry that they might not understand every word or expression I use.

    (Strangely, my friend and his American wife rarely communicate with each other in this manner, at least not in my observation. The language of their household is French.)

  2. Bill Benzon said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 6:57 am

    Off the top of my head: One of the things that I learned as an undergraduate is that our passive or receptive vocabulary is larger than our active or productive vocabulary. That would seem to be in the same behavioral ball park. What I'd like to know is why? It seems to me that there has to be a simple and direct explanation, but I can't for the life of me come up with one. That explanation obviously needs to be couched in a good account of our linguistic mechanisms. And THAT's something we don't have. OTOH, this phenomenon seems to me to be a valuable clue about the workings of that mechanism.

    What do the computational linguists know about the difference between parsing a sentence and generating one? Of course one can, in principle, parse a sentence without knowing what the words mean, and I believe that we've got parsers that do a pretty good job of this. To produce a sentence one starts with items of meaning (whatever/however they are) and assembles them into a coherent string.

    Let's step back a second. On the receptive side, let's posit that the world is pretty much the same regardless of the language you speak (yeah, I know, Sapir-Whorf, but how strong is that, really?). And, however we order our inner semantic engine, there is coherence and order there. When listening to someone speak a familiar but foreign language, we don't have to supply the syntax; it's already there in the string. All we have to do is map the individual lexemes to our inner semantic store, perhaps with the help of a syntactic clue or three, and we understand. And if we're in conversation we can do a bit of back and forth to clarify things, even if our conversational partners are in the same situation as we are (i.e. they can understand us, but not speak our language).

    So, it's one thing to understand language strings, where syntactic order is there in the string. It's quite something else to produce them, where we have to create that order. Both cases presuppose that we've got usable mappings between lexical forms and semantic elements.

    That's connected speech. But what about individual vocabulary items in our own language? Why does the range of words we can understand in context exceed the number we can actually use? Well, duh, because we actually HAVE a semantic context supplied to use when listening to speaking or reading written language. Again, its the context.

    Now, what's the right set of technical details needed to pull this all together?

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 7:01 am

    For me, the reverse obtains — I find it far easier to speak a language (other than my L1, English) than to understand a native speaker using that language. I think that the reasons are three-fold : (1) a native speaker will often use words with which I am not familiar; (2) a native speaker will often speak more quickly than the speed at which I can understand; (3) when speaking, I can usually manage to create a circumlocution for complex concepts, or simply for words that are not in my idiolect/vocabulary, using simpler words that are in my idiolect/vocabulary. When (for example) my wife and I travel overseas, she will often tell me (in English) what the other party has said, and I will then answer for both of us. Not always of course (she speaks at least five languages, most fluently) but sufficiently often for me to be aware of it.

  4. Vilinthril said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 7:17 am

    For me, it's certainly easier to *read* languages of which I'm not an L1 speaker; on the other hand, with Austrian Sign Language I feel far more proficient in signing something than in understanding other people signing.

  5. Öberg said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 7:56 am

    It would be very interesting to see if there existed some sort of lexical or grammatical threshold, after which passiv understanding surpasses speaking, i.e. when the a person starts to understand more than he/she can express. I wonder if this threshold varies from languages.

  6. JJM said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 8:13 am

    "All of this leads me to conclude that, in general, passive recognition of languages is easier than active production, and that this holds true both with speech and writing."

    Here in Canada, I've observed that's true of many monolingual English speakers: they have enough knowledge to pick up the gist of a French-language TV/radio item, newspaper article or conversation even though they won't be able to comment on them in French.

  7. Rube said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 8:18 am

    I suspect this is true in Miami, with respect to anglophones understanding Spanish. My own anecdatum relates to a bus trip, where two men starting jawing at each other in Spanish. Things got warmer, and one of them said…something. I have no idea what it was, but people, including the bus driver, none of them Cuban, started yelling in English: "Language! Gentlemen, you can't talk like that on my bus!" and so forth.

    So, passive recognition at least of incredibly vile obscenities.

  8. Phil Jennings said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 8:21 am

    In the very good 2012 series "Salamander," I watched dialogs where one person spoke French and the other spoke Flemish.

  9. Scott P. said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 10:11 am

    When I lived in Spain I (L1 English) once had a trilingual conversation with a German and a Spaniard where we each spoke our own language. It was fun.

    Certainly I agree with the idea that passive understanding is easier than active production. Due to my knowledge of Latin, French and Spanish, I can read a Catalan or Portuguese text with very little problems, but I couldn't for the life of me produce a single work in either language.

  10. Chiara Maqueda said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 11:11 am

    I'd be astonished if people spoke/understood Torres Strait Creole–far more likely Kriol, a Northern Territory-centred creole. The two creoles are strikingly different.

  11. Mark Young said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 11:18 am


    Receptive vocabulary is larger than productive vocabulary because recognition is easier than recall in general. You've probably had the experience of trying to recall the name of someone you knew long ago, and having trouble doing so, but immediately recognizing the name when someone else supplies it. The name is in your memory, but not in an easily accessible place. Likewise words. I don't think there's anything particularly linguistic about it.

  12. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 11:52 am

    @ Laura Morland. The adjective describing the conversations you and your native francophone friends are having is "ambilingual." I learned the term in the 1980s, possibly from a member of the Prague School. It is handy because it does not add another meaning to "bilingual."

    To the reasons why passive knowledge is easier to acquire than active (which also implies passive) knowledge (in case the following has not yet been mentioned):

    You have to know much more to speak and write than you do to read and listen.

    For example, I read Standard Modern German easily but for the life of me could not hold even a simple conversation in German . Thus, I know that der, die, das, and dem, den, and des are forms of the definiite article (consequently I have no difficulty recognizing them and remembering their function) but I don't know when each of them is to used.

  13. Alyssa said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

    How related are these nine languages? It's been my experience that as I got closer to fluency in French, I picked up a decent level of passive comprehension of Spanish. I can follow a conversation if I know enough context, but I can't say anything more than a few basic phrases.

  14. turang said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    The article talks about an island, suggesting an isolation from other regions, but it is probably true that each group in the island have dealings with their language speakers from other islands around them.

    I am aware that the same situation exists in villages and towns in India, for sure in the South. In Bangalore, on the street where I grew up many languages were spoken. An incomplete list would be Kannada, English, some Sanskrit in some households, Iyengar dialect of Tamil, Sanketi dialect of Tamil, Tamil spoken by recent transplants from Tamilnadu, Konkani, Tulu, Babburukamme dialect of Telugu, Hindi). Some sort of Urdu was also spoken, though across the tracks… Curiously, one of the children from a Telugu family hung out with children from an Iyengar family a lot for a few months and her Tamil became indistinguishable from the Iyengar children's. There were also some invented variations of languages which older children and adults used to keep things secret in the presence of younger children.

  15. Craig S said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    @JJM, I was going to say the same. I'm a Canadian who grew up in Northern Ontario; although my mother is francophone, my dad isn't, so we always spoke English at home and I went to English schools. Yet my cousins on my mom's side went to French schools, and I was around sometimes when my mom was speaking French with my grandmother or my aunts and uncles.

    All of which means I was exposed to enough French growing up to understand it reasonably well (although I do struggle with some of the nuances sometimes), but I never became very fluent at actually speaking it myself. I can fool people into thinking I'm a native francophone if I'm reading from a prepared script, but I can't carry on an extemporaneous conversation in French to save my life.

  16. Chandra said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

    I agree with @Mark Young re. vocabulary recognition vs. recall.

    As far as grammar goes, as an English instructor (whose students are mostly ESL), it's very common for me to see students who can breezily ace grammar exercises or tests, but then regularly fail to use said grammar correctly in their writing and speech. I believe this is also because learned knowledge about grammar is stored in a different part of the brain than the part we use to convert ideas into verbal expression, at least until we've had enough authentic practice with it for it to become second-nature. So my students can understand me very well when I speak, but cannot spontaneously produce English at the same level of fluency, and would certainly be more comfortable replying in their own languages (if I were able to understand them).

  17. Erik said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 3:19 pm

    Maybe Star Wars isn't as linguistically unrealistic as I thought it was…

  18. Peter B. Golden said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

    In the North Caucasus, "the Mountain of Tongues" to medieval Arab geographers, it is not uncommon for the ethnic grouping living at the highest levels of their particular mountain to be able to speak the languages of all the other peoples below them (sometimes five or six) as they make their way down to the plains where a Turkic language (more often Qumuq or Azeri) is used as a lingua franca. If I recall correctly Ronald Wixman describes this situation in his "Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus" (Chicago, 1980).

  19. Chau said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 3:45 pm

    This post reminded me of an article I read some years ago by Jared Diamond (author of several best-selling books such as Guns, Germs, and Steel). It was published in Nature magazine (vol. 403, pp. 709-710, 17 Feb 2000) entitled "Taiwan's gift to the world". In discussing multilingualism among Native Taiwanese (who speak Austranesian) and Aboriginal Australians, he mentioned an incidental observation he made in New Guinea:

    "For instance, a few months ago, while I was sitting around a campfire in New Guinea with a dozen New Guinea highlanders, each of us volunteered how many languages he spoke. It turned out that every one of the New Guineans spoke between five and ten."

    Following some discussion he came to an interesting conclusion: "The multilingualism of Aboriginal Taiwanese and Australians represented the norm for almost all of human history; we Nature readers who grow up in big monolingual nations are an aberration of modern times."

  20. Victor Mair said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    When I was teaching at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan in 1970-72, I had an extraordinary student whom I referred to as a "walking dictionary". He could recite the definition for almost any English word that I threw at him. I honestly thought that he must have memorized an entire English dictionary. Yet he was probably the worst in the class when it came to composing English sentences. He was very poor both at speaking and at writing in English. He had no sense of grammar or syntax. Teaching him was so frustrating that it was actually funny.

  21. cliff arroyo said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

    I thought that this was widely known and responsible for relative mutual intelligibility of mainland Scandinavian languages.
    Another issue is continual exposure as in the case of Slovak and Czech. It's my understanding that while Czech is still accessible to Slovaks because of TV Slovak has all but disappeared in the Czech media and young Czechs don't have enough exposure to easily understand Slovak.

  22. Bill Benzon said,

    November 27, 2018 @ 6:34 pm

    @Mark Young

    " I don't think there's anything particularly linguistic about it."

    Your example, though, a person's name, is, after all, linguistic. Still, I take your point. However, we can both perceive and produce language. But it's one thing to recognize, say, a certain flower. Producing it is another matter.

  23. Chas Belov said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 12:12 am

    I'm in the same boat as Philip Taylor. I can speak Cantonese and Spanish better than I can understand them. Although I think I can read Spanish better than I can speak it.

  24. R. Fenwick said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 3:44 am

    @Alyssa, you make a good point regarding mutual intelligibility of closely-related languages possibly playing a part. The striking thing is, though, that doesn't seem to play as big a role as one might think. In addition to the obvious Kriol, at least three top-level language families are involved (Iwaidjan – Mawng, Iwaidja; Arnhem – Burarra, Ndjebbana, Nakkara, Kunbarlang, Bininj Gunwok; Pama-Nyungan – Yolngu), the Arnhem languages fall into two distinct branches of that family (Maningrida – Burarra, Ndjebbana, Nakkara; Kunwinjkuan – Kunbarlang, Bininj Gunwok), and apparently none of the Maningrida languages are particularly closely related to one another. I was just reading an article of Nick Evans's while reading further into the topic, and he notes that there are some people in the region – not necessarily Warruwi specifically, but in the same area of Arnhem Land – for whom a familiarity with Indonesian is also in the mix. So recognition of clear cognacy would probably be a major factor only between Mawng and Iwaidja speakers on the one hand, and between Kunbarlang and Bininj Gunwok speakers on the other, which makes this degree of receptive multilingualism even more striking.

  25. Ellen K. said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:52 am

    Related to what Phillip Taylor and Chas Belov wrote, I've had experiences, with Spanish speakers, where each person speaks the other's language. Which works because you can be pretty sure the other person will understand you.

    However, I also can read Italian and French pretty decently though I can't write or speak them hardly at all. It's not hard to image a situation of someone hearing a language but not using it themself and thus coming to understand the language without learning to speak it.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 8:18 am

    From C K Wang:

    When we went to the primary school we were forbidden to speak Taiwanese in public . We spoke Taiwanese at home and when there were no strangers around. So people in my generation speak Taiwanese well—we have kept the mother tongue. I told stories from 西遊記* to Andrea and Clare in Taiwanese and they talked and still talk to each other in Taiwanese though they were required to speak mandarin at all time in school.

    Most of my Taiwanese friends and colleagues however spoke mandarin with their children though they spoke Taiwanese with each other or with their elders. Some of those children might learn Taiwanese from their grandparents if they were lucky to spend time with them. I often make jokes of them, saying I would hang at their door a plaque stating: 失去母語的家庭**。The situation has been getting worse. Now the grandparents talk with their grandchildren in broken mandarin even though the government encourages people to speak local dialects which are now taught at school. English is taught in primary schools and in many kindergartens now. But we are losing the mother tongue. It’s really sad.


    *Xīyóu jì 西遊記 (Journey to the West)

    **shīqù mǔyǔ de jiātíng 失去母語的家庭 ("a family who lost their mother tongue")

  27. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 11:58 am

    The cited article describes a local couple named Nancy and Richard, where "Nancy always spoke to Richard in Mawng, but Richard always replied in Yolngu-Matha, even though Nancy also spoke fluent Yolngu-Matha." This couple reminded me of my parents, whose communication, while living in Poland and later in postwar Germany, was one in which my mother always spoke to my father in Polish, while he always spoke to her in Yiddish, even though he also spoke fluent (but not always idiomatic) Polish (which he also spoke with me as a child). Interestingly, while my mother's first language was also Yiddish, her schooling was in Polish and soon the school language took over, so that in the time that I remember her Yiddish was halting. She reacquired fluency in it when, after the war, we lived in a displaced persons' camp in which Yiddish was the lingua franca.
    Once we moved to United States, and once my parents acquired (with my help) enough fluency in English, this became their medium of communication, rather unusually for immigrants.

  28. Robert Ayers said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

    I am with Philip Taylor, at least concerning language at a basic level. When I was trying to learn Spanish, I could talk about my casa or apartamento. But if someone more fluent was talking, he might choose a different Spanish noun for his home/dwelling/residence/abode/cottage, one not in my vocabulary, and I would be lost. Person to person helps here, as opposed to phone: the other party sees my dumb look and deliberately simplifies his word-choices.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:36 pm

    From David Johnson:

    I have always assumed that bilingual intermediaries were necessary in the border zones of south Chinese “dialects.” This little article suggests a more elegant and satisfying picture. But is it in fact the case? What about Taiwanese speakers and Mandarin speakers in Taiwan 50 years ago?

  30. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 28, 2018 @ 7:48 pm

    I don't know how much one anecdote bears on this, but:

    My Japanese is pretty much limited to martial arts terms, food terms, and a few phrases from those contexts. I am, however, somewhat used to hearing spoken Japanese. My mother-in-law, who is of Japanese descent but did not learn the language as a child, has studied it in adulthood.

    We went to Kyoto together and needed to interact with Japanese speakers on some occasions, such as asking for directions when lost. Invariably, the interactions devolved into MIL asking questions in Japanese (I couldn't have done so to save my life) and me listening to and interpreting the Japanese mixed with broken English the speakers tried in response, which she found completely opaque.

    For her, production was easier than understanding. (Maybe the way she learned the language?) For me it was completely the other way around.

  31. tangent said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 12:02 am

    As a bad Russian speaker I'm in Philip Taylor's boat. Native speakers produce a high-speed blurry mash!

  32. Jason M said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 1:54 am

    When I studied language in school, understanding was far easier than speaking. What one hears in school is almost always in some sort of context and spoken by people who know what vocabulary you know. As I began to travel and always crash learn as much as I can of the visited country’s language, I find speaking way easier, as I learn how to say stuff (thanks Google translate app!) and then say it as much as I can so it sticks. Easy-peasy. The gibberish people speak back is always frustrating, and the app is no help unless you really need to break down and have each party speak slowly and use it.

    Plus, frankly some languages are just harder to understand spoken. French, which is my best in terms of reading and speaking, is designed to link all words tigether in a stressless way that makes parsing the spoken version hard even when one knows every word. The Spanish I have heard where I have gone has clear word breaks and articulation such that I could transliterate even if I don’t completely understand. Danes swallow their words, whereas Swedes tend to sing and articulate them.

    Mandarin is the worst. I can say all manner of stuff, but the design of the language is such that the same syllables mean dozens of things depending on tone and combination such that one always hears words that sound familiar but may not be the ones you know.

    Oh and then there are ones like Japanese where the word conveying actual meaning may be only a syllable long but surrounded by various words conveying politeness and status. To the beginner ear, one is drawn to all the kudasai’s and stuff that are repitious while missing the meaning.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 6:26 am

    Sorry, the "not equals" dropped out of the above, as did one hanzi: mea culpa. Repeated here with missing symbols (I hope) —

    Jason ("Mandarin is the worst. I can say all manner of stuff, but the design of the language is such that the same syllables mean dozens of things depending on tone and combination") — Perhaps I can help a little with this. It is essential when thinking/reading/writing Mandarin to accept that two syllables (or two words) are not the same if they differ in tone (mā [妈] <> má [麻] <> mǎ [马] <> mà [骂] <> ma [吗]). Until this becomes second nature, the non-native speaker will always struggle. We in the West often have difficulty coming to terms with this, but it is so intrinsic to being able to speak (etc.) Mandarin successfully that its importance cannot be over-stated. And in addition, just because two words are written identically in Pinyin, that is no guarantee that they are, in fact, the same word at all (tā [他] <> tā [她] <> tā [它]).

  34. John Swindle said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 4:58 am

    @Philip Taylor
    Just because tā [他, tā [她], and tā [它]) are written differently is no guarantee that they are different words. They could be different ways of writing the same word, all meaning "he, she, or it" and pronounced the same way. It depends on whether you want to give priority to the spoken language or the written language.

    On your main point about tones I completely agree, and of course there are homonyms in Chinese as in other languages.

  35. Philip Taylor said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 11:04 am

    Well, yes, it all depends what one means by "word". Google Translate is hardly the ultimate arbiter, I would be the first to accept, but if it can be relied on for these three glyphs at least, the first means "he", the second "she" and the last "it". If Google is correct, three words; if Google is wrong, then perhaps fewer.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

    Phillip, that at some point people chose three different ways to write tā does not necessarily mean they are separate words in the spoken language. From what I understand from discussion here at Language Log, the reason for the different in writing is influence from other languages, a conscious choice to copy a distinction made in other languages, but only in the written language. And that they are translated three different ways in English does not mean they are three different words in spoken Mandarin.

    Mostly, it seems to me it's an inappropriate choice for showing that two different works can sound the same. Surely there are examples that are more clearly separate words.

  37. Philip Taylor said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

    Ellen ("Surely there are examples that are more clearly separate words") — I'm sure there are; I simply took the first three that came to mind. But please note — at no point did I say that they were separate words in the spoken language, simply that they were three different words, a fact that would be completely opaque to those who can read only Pinyin.

  38. John Swindle said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 12:21 am

    Philip, you're quite right (and Google Translate is quite right) that 他、她、and 它 are best translated into English as "he," "she," and "it" respectively. Furthermore, they are currently best understood as separate characters rather than different versions of the same character. And they all represent the Mandarin word tā, which means "he, she, or it." As we say in Hawaii, that's why hard.

    There are lots of potential sources of confusion in matching Chinese words and text, especially for the likes of me, but as far as I can tell this one is sui generis. That would be why Ellen K. suggested it might not be the best example.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 4:54 am

    John — "And they all represent the Mandarin word tā, which means 'he, she, or it'.". This is the point at which I begin to feel uneasy. Do 他、她、and 它 "all represent the Mandarin word 'tā'" ? Is there, in fact, a Mandarin word 'tā' at all, or are there simply three Chinese words 他、她、and 它, all of which sound something like /tɑː/ spoken in a level tone, but which have three quite different meanings ?

  40. Ellen K. said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 11:16 am

    But they don't have "quite different meanings". "He", "she", and "it" in English don't have quite different meanings. They have quite similar meanings.

  41. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

    Ellen, I think that you and I are divided by a common language. In my world (as Bob Ross might have said) "he" refers to a human male, "she" to a human female, and "it" to something inanimate, something animate but not human (in contexts where sex is irrelevant), or to a neonate.

    If I were to refer to you in the third person, I would refer to you as "she"; if I were to refer to Victor, I would refer to him as "he". Both of you would be perfectly entitled to be offended if I deliberately used the wrong pronoun, so they don't have "similar" meanings at all. "Related", yes; "similar", no.

  42. Jason M said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

    @Phillip – I appreciate the thoughtful explanation, and, as I have studied more Chinese, I really have gotten better at thinking in terms of how 2 characters and syllables actually combine to make a word in an Indo-European sense vs. how, say, my old thinking which was that something like “pengyou” is a combination of two words, each meaning friend. And, of course, you don’t get far without understanding tones, but as you know a single syllable of the exact same tone can also be represented by several characters and mean many different things, so what you hear may not be the character you know, so it’s a lot of stress on your auditory parsing system to integrate all of that!

  43. Ellen K. said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 11:10 pm

    Philip, you honestly can't see a similarity between three words that are all subject pronouns, and all used to refer to a single individual who is neither the person speaking, nor the person (one of the people) being spoken to? Wow. I don't know what to say to that. The similarity seems screamingly obvious.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 12:31 am

    The genderization of tā into masculine, feminine, and neuter (with the invention of three separate Chinese characters to convey the genders) is a twentieth-century phenomenon, done in emulation of Western grammar. In the spoken language, they remain identical: tā. The gender differences are only visible in writing.

  45. John Swindle said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 12:36 am

    If English happened to refer to males, females, and inanimate objects indifferently as "she," and if we decided modernity required "she" to be spelled (but not pronounced) differently for males, females, and inanimate objects, would we then have three words or one? Would it matter? For receptive multilingualism I think it would not.

  46. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 4:03 am

    Victor — Thank you for that information.

    John — I think three, because schoolteachers would correct any child who wrote the wrong one. But I would agree that in the context of receptive multilingualism it would probably not pose a barrier to mutual intelligibility.

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