All right, time to finish making good on my Grammar Girl book giveaway contest. Today I’m writing on the topic suggested by the third of the winners, named Anne. Anne wrote:
Last year I enrolled in an Ancient Greek language course. The cases, tenses, verb agreements etc. came as a shock to me and for that reason I began searching out how to use English correctly. My impassioned instructor told us of the trade culture of Papua New Guinea that necessitated words that specified relationships between parties. He said there was a word for “you and me”, a word for “you and me but not them”, a word for “you and me and them” etc. It got me thinking about how extremely specified English is, yet rarely … are the definitions of words heeded when used.
To tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure what Anne had in mind with that last sentence. Maybe she meant was thinking about people who say in lieu of when they mean in view of, or hysterical instead of hilarious. But I didn’t choose this topic because of that last part, which would probably be too broad for a single blog post anyway. I chose it because the first part brought back memories, and the second part happens to be something I was just reading about.
Anne’s story of learning Ancient Greek took me back to a late summer day in El Paso, Texas, just before I started my freshman year in high school. I walked to the Eastwood High gym that afternoon to pick up my textbooks for the coming year, including volume 1 of Living Latin. After two years of junior high school Spanish, I was eager to begin learning Latin, and as I walked back home, I opened the book to see what was in store for me.
Some pictures with Latin labels: “FEMINA”, “FLVMEN”, “CANIS”. A few sample sentences, the only one of which I remember is Manus manum lavat: “One hand washes the other.” Then there was some stuff about noun declensions. Declensions? What’s a declension? That worried me a little. I flipped to the back and found the appendix, and my slight worry grew into moderate anxiety as I saw phrases like fifth declension, accusative case, and fourth conjugation. When I came across pluperfect tense, I knew I’d better do something before school began. Even if I didn’t know what declensions, cases, or conjugations were, I had thought I at least knew what a verb tense was. I knew about past, present, and future tense in English, and the present and preterite tense in Spanish. (That’s right: two years of Spanish; two verb tenses learned. At least for regular verbs.) But with this “pluperfect” tense staring back at me, I realized I needed an English grammar refresher (or more accurately, a fresher) before I started anything in Latin.
When I got home, I found a section on English grammar in the back pages of our dictionary, and finally learned what the present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tenses were. And the subjunctive mood. Before, those had just been vague terms that were good only for conversations when you wanted to talk about grammar jokingly, kind of like when people talk about a nonexistent distant relation as “my father’s ninth cousin, twice removed”. (You know they don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that, because if they did, they’d say “my tenth cousin, once removed”, or “my ninth cousin, three times removed”.) I still didn’t know what declensions were, or the pluperfect tense, but now I didn’t have the uneasy feeling that they were things I should know at the outset. So that’s how learning a classical language helped Anne and me with our English: By scaring us into learning English grammar on our own!
Now, as for the second part of Anne’s suggestion, I read a paper called “‘We rules: The impact of an inclusive/exclusive opposition on the paradigmatic structure of person marking,” by Michael Cysouw (in Pronouns — Grammar and Representation, 2002, ed. by Horst J. Simon and Heike Wiese). He had investigated a sampling of languages from around the world to find out what patterns there were to homophony among pronouns (and among its person markers for its verbs). For example, Standard English uses just one pronoun, you, for second person singular and second person plural. German uses Sie for both third person singular feminine (“she”) and second person plural (or polite singular). And in what should be Standard English, they functions as both third person plural and third person singular common gender. Cysouw found that there was a correlation between the kinds of pronoun homophony in a language and how it handled the concepts of inclusive and exclusive “we”.
First, some background. Cysouw excluded from his study languages that had number distinctions like dual (just two participants) or paucal (a few), and focused only on those that distinguished singular from plural. For these languages, there are eight possible categories for person, three of them singular and five of them plural. The singulars are the familiar first person (speaker), second person (single addressee), and third person (anyone else). For the plurals, there is second person (multiple addressees) and third person (multiple others), which makes five total. The remaining three are all versions of first person plural. There’s the “exclusive ‘we'”, i.e. speaker plus other(s) but not including the addressee(s), which makes six. I would have thought the “inclusive ‘we'” would bring the total to seven, but I was surprised to find that there are two kinds of inclusive “we”, as Anne mentioned. Speaker plus addressee(s) and no one else, i.e. “you and me but not them”, is known as the minimal inclusive first person plural. Speaker plus addressee(s) plus others, i.e. “you and me and them”, is the augmented inclusive first person plural.
Theoretically, among these eight possibilities, any pair of person categories could be homophonous, but in fact, only a few kinds of homophony tend to occur. By my calculations, there are 618 possible ways for homophony to exist in these eight categories, if you sum up the possibilities for zero homophony, only two homophones, only three, four, five, six, and finally complete homophony. But out of 265 languages, Cysouw found only 62 arrangements of homophony. Nine of those arrangements accounted for about 70% of the languages. I’ve illustrated eight of them below, with matching colors (other than white) indicating homophony. The ninth case is the case of zero homophony, which I didn’t include because eight diagrams make a tidier picture, and because you can picture this schematic without any color in it yourselves.
Patterns of pronoun homophony
Latin would be the pattern on the top right. As far as its present tense suffixes go, English isn’t among these nine. As far as pronouns go, English comes closest to the top middle diagram: We make no distinction between any of the three kinds of “we”, and our second person singular and plural are homophonous. If we take singular they into account, the fit is closer because of the homophony on the bottom row, but not perfect because of the distinct he, she, and it. The patterns on the bottom row are languages that distinguish between inclusive and exclusive “we”, but not between minimal and augmented inclusive “we”.
One thing that you can notice immediately about the most common pronoun setups is that any homophony is between (or among) contiguous cells in the table, though homophony among noncontiguous cells is certainly attested in languages of the world. For example, first and third person singular are sometimes homophonous; in Spanish, these two forms are identical in the imperfect, present subjunctive, imperfect subjunctive, and conditional.
One thing that Cysouw noticed is that when a language has a distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”, none of its singular forms are homophonous. None of the four common patterns on the bottom row have singular homophony (or in the top row, either, though that’s not relevant here), nor did any of the rest of Cysouw’s sampled languages that had this distinction. Furthermore, languages with the inclusive/exclusive “we” distinction usually don’t show plural homophony, either (beyond minimal and augmented inclusive “we”). Only 12% of Cysouw’s languages with the inclusive/exclusive distinction had some kind of plural homophony, compared to 28% for those that didn’t have the distinction.
Cysouw further observed that the level of pronoun homophony for the singular or plural columns in these most common patterns follows a kind of hierarchy. If there’s going to be any person homophony at all, it will be between minimal and augmented inclusive “we”. If there’s more person homophony, it will be to erase the distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”. Beyond that, you’ll find that second person plural is thrown in. If there’s even more person homophony than that, it will be for first and second person in the singular to be homophonous as well. However, this hierarchy is only true of personIndependent of this hierarchy, there can be various kinds of number homophony (or as Cysouw calls it, “horizontal homophony”) going on, too.
Cysouw made several other generalizations about person marking, both in stand-alone pronouns, clitics (unstressed pronouns that can’t stand alone), and marking of the verbs, but the above are the most salient. What I wonder now is whether there are any languages that distinguish between all of these kinds of “we” plus the “speaker + speaker” version of “we” — in other words, the “we” that refers to two or more speakers saying something in unison, like “We wish you a merry Christmas.” And although I’m sure they have a way to do it, I wonder how languages with first and second person plural homophony express the thought, “Just between you and me.”
Anne, thanks for the suggestion; good luck with Ancient Greek; and get good use out of Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide!