Inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns in Sinitic

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On September 11, Friday afternoon, Diana Shuheng Zhang gave a virtuoso presentation before the Cornell Classical Chinese Colloquium (CCCC), a venerable institution that has been meeting regularly for decades.  The text she discussed was what she calls the "rhapsodic subcommentary" of the Daoist scholar, Cheng Xuanying 成玄英 (ca. 605-690), on the Zhuang Zi 莊子 (3rd c. BC).

In her explication of the 46th passage of the first chapter of the Zhuang Zi, Diana quoted Cheng Xuanying as stating:  "yǔ, wǒ yě 予,我也" ("'I' is / means 'I'").  Naturally, that led to a discussion of how such a definition would be necessary or helpful.  I pointed out that there are numerous first person pronouns in Sinitic.  Aside from the two already mentioned, there are also yú 余, wú 吾, and zhèn 朕 (like the royal "we" in English) and still others, not to mention several other humble self-references.  In addition, I mentioned zán 咱, which I knew was much later than the others, more highly colloquial, and regionally restricted.  It was part of my main observation that, in order to account for such phenomena (e.g., why are there two completely different words for "dog" — gǒu 狗 and quǎn 犬 ("dog") — we need to adopt the notion of linguistic stratification.  That is to say, the complex formation of the Sinitic peoples evolved over at least five millennia and involved the incorporation of diverse genetic, ethnic, and linguistic components.

For example, we cannot even be sure whether the people / rulers of the first three main dynasties — the Shang / Yin (1600-1046 BC), Zhou (1046-256 BC), and Qin (221-206 BC) — were all speaking the same languages.  There are sharp regional and sociocultural differences that must be taken into account as well, and Chinese scholars have long been aware of them (e.g., the polymath Yang Xiong [53 BC-18 AD], Fāngyán 方言 [Topolects] — see the bibliography below — and the historian and author Gan Bao 干寶 [286-336] in his commentaries on the writings of others).

Beyond synchronic and diachronic stratification, to understand the multiplicity of words for the same or similar meaning, we also have to take into account grammatical differentiation.  That is to say, one word of a doublet or triplet, etc., may indicate one case and another word of the doublet or triplet might indicate another case.

Students who get beyond the introductory stage in learning Mandarin soon come to realize that there is an inclusive first person plural pronoun zánmen 咱们 and an exclusive first person plural pronoun wǒmen 我们.

Tsu-Lin Mei observed:

咱 'we' in Mandarin needs some additional philological data.  Lü Shuxiang in 近代汉语指代词 97 pointed out that 咱 is a fusion of 自家 and is used either in the sense of 'I' or 'we'. Tsu-Lin Mei 1988 北方方言中第一人称代词複数包括式和排除式对立的来源 shows that all northern Mandarin dialects have the inclusive / exclusive distinction, e.g., 咱们/我们, yet, throughout the history of Chinese up to the late Tang, no such distinction existed.  So where does this distinction come from?  The answer is: from Altaic.  All Altaic languages, e.g., Mongolian, Manchu, Turkic (Kiva) have this distinction.  Therefore, it must be through contact with the Altaic languages that Chinese acquired the inclusive / exclusive distinction. The earliest Chinese source which shows this distinction is 刘知远诸宫调, which dates from the 12th or early 13th century, in which the inclusive 'we' 咱 is opposed to the exclusive 'we' 俺, which is a fusion of 我们。

"Liú Zhīyuǎn zhūgōngdiào 劉知遠諸宮調 / 刘知远诸宫调" is the "Medley on Liu Zhiyuan".

Juha Janhunen remarked:

The distinction between exclusive and inclusive 1PL pronouns has indeed often been considered as one of the features that Mandarin Chinese acquired in its process of "Altaicization" (Hashimoto Mantaro's term). Nowadays some people (like Johanna Nichols) would prefer to say that it is an ancient Pacific Rim feature. The problem is that it is relatively recent also in the "Altaic" languages. In both Mongolic (bi-da) and Tungusic (Ewenki mi-ti, Manchu mu-se) the inclusive pronoun is formed by the transparent compounding of the 1st and 2nd person pronouns (either SG or PL). Even so, it was already present in Proto-Mongolic and probably Proto-Tungusic, so Mandarin can have acquired it from some early form of these languages. It is also present in Ghilyak (Nivkh, the "Amuric" family) and Ainu (the "Kurilic" family).

Alexander Vovin added:

Juha is right that the distinction between exclusive/inclusive 1pl pp Mongolic and Tungusic is transparent and relatively recent. But imho a phenomenon doesn't have to be old to be borrowed or mimicked. In the case of Chinese given the date of this innovation, it can only be from Middle Mongolian.

Marcel Erdal commented:

The feature is present in some modern Turkic languages but NOT in any early variety; I would take it to be due to contact with Mongolic.

Personal reminiscences by Tsu-Lin Mei on the scholarship surrounding 咱们/我们:

There is a long story behind my comments on 咱们 / 我们。

In the 70's Jerry Norman and I both went to NYC to attend an ACLS sponsored meeting on the feasibility of making a Classical Chinese – English Dictionary . After the meeting I invited Jerry to come back to Ithaca with me and he accepted. I told him one of the attractions is that he would be able to meet Sofronov, who was visiting Cornell for a semester.

When we were in Ithaca, I asked Jerry, "Since Chinese and Altaic had been in contact for centuries, there must be loans from Altaic into Chinese. But what are they?" Jerry named two. (1) the 咱们/我们 opposition in Northern Mandarin and (2) 哥 ‘older brother, father' which is a loan from Altaic aqain.

I kept the 咱们 / 我们 idea in my head. And in 1983 when I went to teach at Peking University I prepared a syllabus, and in the syllabus, I listed 10 unsolved problems in Chinese historical linguistics and told the class that they could choose any problem from the list and write a term paper (and they could also formulate their own problem). 刘一之 chose the 咱们 / 我们 problem for her honors thesis and by the end of the term, she found the answer: the earliest attestation of the inclusive / exclusion opposition was in "Liú Zhīyuǎn zhūgōngdiào 劉知遠諸宮調 / 刘知远诸宫调" ("Medley on Liu Zhiyuan") and the opposition is between 咱 & 俺. Her honors thesis was published in 语言學论丛 1988 and Mei 1988 is my postscript to Liu's paper, giving the background information on Altaic languages and I said that the loan into Chinese is probably from Khitan (辽) or Jurchen (金).

In the preface to the first edition (1955) of 吕叔湘,《汉语语法论文集》,Lü Shuxiang mentions that two of his earliest papers were published during the War in 華西协合大學中国文化研究所集刊, but since he did not have access to that journal, he had to leave these articles out. In the expanded edition of 汉语语法论文集(1983), Lü's 1940 paper, 释您,俺,咱,喒,附论们字, was included, and in that paper Lü showed that the earliest attestation is in 刘之远传, i.e., 咱/俺,and this was due to influence from Northern tribes (北方民族)。

One day when I was walking in the Wason stacks, I discovered 華西协合大學中国文化研究所集刊 (Wason DS 701 S93+, English title: Studia Serica). Knight Biggerstaff was cultural attache at the Chungking embassy and probably he bought these volumes.

Map of Chinese dialectal equivalents for 咱們 (we; us (inclusive))


Selected readings

  • "Of dogs and Old Sinitic reconstructions" (3/7/18)
  • "Historical dialectology and the Poetry Classic" (7/9/20)
  • M. V. Sofronov, "Chinese Philology and the Scripts of Central Asia", Sino-Platonic Papers, 30 (October, 1991), 1-10 (free pdf).
  • Yang Xiong (53 BC-18 AD), Fāngyán 方言 ("Topolects"), full title Yóuxuān shǐzhĕ juédài yǔ shì biéguó fāngyán (輶軒使者絕代語釋別國方言 (Local expressions of other countries in times immemorial explained by the Light-Carriage Messenger).
  • Zhuang Zi 莊子 (Master Zhuang), my favorite ancient Chinese text.  For a complete translation, see Victor H. Mair, tr., Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998; first ed. New York:  Bantam, 1994); also available as Zhuangzi Bilingual Edition, translated by Victor H. Mair (English) and Minci Li (Modern Chinese) (Columbus:  The Ohio State University Foreign Language Publications, production of the National East Asian Languages Resource Center, OSU, 2019) — this is actually a trilingual edition, since the 736 pages volume also includes the original Classical Chinese version.
  • Jerry Norman, Chinese (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)


  1. Bathrobe said,

    September 19, 2020 @ 11:31 pm

    I learnt 咱们 when I was learning Chinese but it didn’t help me when I answered the phone and some complete stranger asked me about 咱公司. He wasn’t talking about his company; he was talking about the company I worked for. Apparently 咱 can be used, in Beijing at least, in a familiarly inclusive way.

  2. ~flow said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 2:05 am

    "哥 ‘older brother, father' which is a loan from Altaic aqain"—should we not expect sth like 啊根 in that case? Why 哥, 哥哥 from aqain?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 8:52 am

    From South Coblin:

    Note that the exclusive/inclusive distinction in 1st pers. pronouns is not limited to northern dialects. It is also found in Southern Min. There we have goán 阮 “we (exclusive)” vs. lán 咱 “we (inclusive)”. The characters I have supplied here are those given in 19th century missionary dictionaries and are , as I seem to recall, those that were in common use in southern Fujian back then, in operas and songs, etc. But I am not a Min specialist, so I am not absolutely certain of that (i.e., the sinographic representations). The distinction between goán and lán is strictly observed in Taiwanese, that I know for a fact. The derivation of these Min forms has been studied and discussed in the relevant literature, but I won’t get into that here.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 9:14 am

    Students who get beyond the introductory stage in learning Mandarin soon come to realize that there is an inclusive first person plural pronoun zánmen 咱们 and an exclusive first person plural pronoun wǒmen 我们.

    Hmm. I think it's fair to say I've gotten beyond the introductory stage. But this is not something I've come to realize, or even something I ever would come to realize — people use inclusive 我们 to me all the time. If I were to rely on my own experience, I would recognize 咱们 as a first-person plural used on television but almost never in actual speech, and 我们 as a first-person plural used everywhere in every context.

    It seems relevant that my experience comes from Shanghai.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 9:16 am

    "哥 ‘older brother, father' which is a loan from Altaic aqain"—should we not expect sth like 啊根 in that case? Why 哥, 哥哥 from aqain?

    Might this be related to 阿哥?

  6. ohwilleke said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 12:40 pm

    Covering the basics for someone like myself who didn't understand the distinction:

    "Inclusive "we" specifically includes the addressee (that is, one of the words for "we" means "you and I and possibly others"), while exclusive "we" specifically excludes the addressee (that is, another word for "we" means "he/she/they and I, but not you"), regardless of who else may be involved."


  7. Philip Taylor said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 1:06 pm

    "I think it's fair to say I've gotten beyond the introductory stage. But this [the fact that there is an inclusive first person plural pronoun zánmen 咱们 and an exclusive first person plural pronoun wǒmen 我们] is not something I've come to realize" — my experience is exactly the opposite. I have no hestitation whatsover in classifying myself as being at the introductory stage, yet I met zánmen 咱们 as early as lesson two of chapter four of Kan Qian's Colloquial Chinese ("Siti: Nàme, zánmen sì diǎn qù yóuyǒng, xíng ma ?"), and our teacher took the trouble to explain the difference.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 2:19 pm

    "Poems Without an ‘I’"
    Madeleine Thien
    NYRB October 8, 2020 Issue

    The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)
    by Ha Jin
    Pantheon, 301 pp., $28.00; $17.00 (paper)

    The Selected Poems of Tu Fu: Expanded and Newly Translated
    by David Hinton
    New Directions, 267 pp., $18.95 (paper)

    Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
    by David Hinton
    Shambhala, 138 pp., $17.95 (paper)


    Coincides with my latest LL post:

    "Inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns in Sinitic"

    See also:

    "Luv u"

    My wife had an aversion to the first person pronoun. She would do practically anything to avoid saying "I". She thought it was egotistical to make frequent, direct reference to herself, whether in speech or in writing. Among traditional Chinese, she probably was not entirely unique in that regard, but she was extreme in her first person avoidance, and it was through her that I became aware of the lengths to which someone might go to keep from saying "I".

    I do not fully comprehend the psychological reasons why some people shy away from use of the first person pronoun, but my sense is that it has to do with not wanting to be assertive.

    Omission of the first person pronoun was almost like a religion for Li-ching, but zero anaphora extended beyond the first person to all the other pronouns, though not as prohibitively. Sinitic languages, by nature, are pro-drop; it's not unusual to see twenty or more sentences in a row without a pronoun.


    Keith Vander Linden, Zhihua Long, and Liang Tao, "Chinese Zero Anaphora in Translation: A Preliminary System" in Victor H. Mair and Yongquan Liu, eds., Characters and Computers ( Amsterdam, Oxford, Washington, Tokyo: IOS Press, 1991).

    It was particularly difficult, virtually impossible, for Li-ching to say "I love you" to anyone, not even her mother or me, for both of whom she had deep affection.

    See also:

    "On the overt verbal expression of romantic love as a modern habit"


    "Presidential pronouns, one more time"

    esp. this comment:

  9. David C. said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 2:46 pm

    Professor Mair made passing reference to humble self-references and also mentioned that there are two words for dog, gǒu 狗 and quǎn 犬. Interestingly enough, one of the possible self-references is quǎn 犬, as in quǎn ér 犬兒 (literally "dog son" to mean "my son"). As highlighted in the first link in the selected readings, dogs were hardly "man's best friend" in traditional Chinese society.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 6:21 pm

    I've occasionally felt the lack of an inclusive/exclusive we in English. I've proposed "we" for the exclusive and "we all" for the inclusive.

  11. LAR said,

    September 20, 2020 @ 11:45 pm

    Exclusive and inclusive first person pronouns were also found in Proto-Austronesian, and a dual pronoun (you singular and I) was also found in Proto-Malayo-Polynesian.

  12. Twill said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 2:42 am

    @David C. Of course comparisons to dogs are rarely flattering in any language, as with dog, mutt, cur, mongrel, bitch, etc. etc.

  13. Nelson Goering said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 4:26 am

    ~flow, here is what Wiktionary has to say, citing Mei:

    “elder brother”
    This sense is attested in Medieval Chinese, and became popular during the Tang dynasty, gradually displacing 兄 (MC hˠwiæŋ).

    It is a clipping of 阿哥 (MC ʔɑ kɑ), a borrowing from Xianbei *aqa (“elder brother”) (Mei, 2015). Compare Proto-Mongolic *aka, whence also Mongolian ᠠᠬ᠎ᠠ (aq-a, “elder brother”). Related to 阿干 (MC ʔɑ kɑn), which is the definite form of the same Xianbei word (Mei, 2015).

    Which would seem to fit with Michael Watts's suspicion. I'm not sure how aqain specifically (assuming that form is secure) is meant to relate to -kɑn

  14. x said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 5:02 am

    No Turkic language has the inclusive/exclusive distinction in the pronominal system.

    (I'm actually submitting this for the third time — my comment keeps getting deleted for some reason).

    [(myl) No, your comment needed to be approved, since you're a first-time commenter, and your multiple submissions were at 4:22am, 4:32am, 4:36am, etc., local time, so no one was awake.]

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 7:38 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    In 梅祖麟语言學论文集 (2000)there are two papers of mine which dealt with inclusive and exclusive 1st person plural pronouns in Northern Mandarin. (1) 1988 北方方言中第一人称代词複数包括式和排除式对立的来源,originally published in 语言學论丛 1988. (2)关于近代汉语指代词—读吕著《近代汉语指代词》,originally published in 中国语文1986,No.6. In Mei 1986, there is a long footnote, footnote 4, which says that Jerry Norman in 1975 told me that the inclusive/exclusive opposition in Northern Mandarin is due to Altaic influence, 刘一之in her honors thesis (毕业论文) showed that the earliest attestation of the inclusive/ exclusive opposition is in 刘知远诸宫调。吕叔湘1940 already anticipated our result, but in 1983, 刘一之 and I did not know Lyu 1940 and therefore we discovered the origin of the inclusive/exclusive distinction independently.

    In any case Mei 1986 & 1988 & Liu Yizhi 1988 made a big impression in China and other Chinese scholars began to study the interaction between Sinitic & Altaic. Lyu Shuxiang wrote Lyu 1940 in Chengdu and it turned out at Chengdu there was 韩儒林, a student of Paul Pelliot and distinguished scholar in Mongolian. It was Han who gave Lyu Shuxiang the idea that the Mandarin inclusive/ exclusive opposition was due to 北方民族(Northern tribes).

    I will write you a longer note on 哥, which is a loan from Altaic *aqa ‘older brother, father’. Loan of kinship terms means intimate contact, or inter-marriange between two peoples. 哥 first occurred in 旧唐书 in the mouth of Tang royal family members. It has been known for a long time that for the royal 李 family,the woman-consort of the founding generations are all 胡 or 鲜卑。The Tang royals must have learned 哥 from their mothers.

  16. Michael Watts said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 12:07 pm

    my experience is exactly the opposite. I have no hestitation whatsover in classifying myself as being at the introductory stage, yet I met zánmen 咱们 as early as lesson two of chapter four of Kan Qian's Colloquial Chinese ("Siti: Nàme, zánmen sì diǎn qù yóuyǒng, xíng ma ?"), and our teacher took the trouble to explain the difference.

    I've had it explained to me too, though never by a Chinese teacher. It has come up on Language Log before. I take no issue with the idea that "there is an inclusive first person plural pronoun zánmen 咱们". But the claim that "[there is] an exclusive first person plural pronoun wǒmen 我们" is plainly incorrect as a description of "Mandarin". 我们 is not exclusive. I'm more than willing to believe that 我们 is exclusive in the mouth of someone who is accustomed to using 咱们, but that's a rather different idea.

  17. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 12:32 pm

    @Michael Watts

    我們 (“we; us (exclusive or no distinction of clusivity)”)

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    September 21, 2020 @ 3:24 pm

    I was going to ask "did Wiktionary create the term 'clusivity'", but I now see that it did not. Despite the fact that the OED does not admit of its existence in terms of affording it a headword entry, it does feature in the citations that accompany the word "exclusive", viz. "2005 M. Cysouw in E. Filimonova Clusivity i. vii. 222 In cases like the English we, there is no formal differentiation between an inclusive and an exclusive pronoun.".

  19. David Marjanović said,

    September 22, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

    The way it was explained to me in an introductory course was that northern Mandarin dialects use exclusive 我们 and inclusive 咱们, southern ones use ambiguous 我们, and the standard – which usually but not always sides with the north in general and Beijing in particular – has both ambiguous 我们 and explicitly inclusive 咱们.

  20. Anthea Fleming said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 10:54 pm

    I believe New Guinea pidgin has two forms for 'we'. One is 'yumi' which includes person addressed, the other is 'uspela' which excludes the person addressed. A useful distinction.

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