Lund Language Diversity Forum Blog

A blog about the wonderful diversity of the world's languages, updated biweekly by the members of Lund Language Diversity Forum.

Double ‘you’ and up to threefold ‘we’

by Loren A. Billings

I grew up speaking two languages: English, the one that I was exposed to from the very start, and Tagalog, which I heard around me starting at 12 months of age. Most of my upbringing was in the Philippines. However, since starting university, I lived in the United States (until 1996).

One thing I remember missing while living in the anglosphere—even before I had any training in linguistics—was a way to distinguish between inclusive and exclusive we. In Tagalog, one must choose between tayo, referring to the speaker and at least one addressee, and kami, denoting the speaker and at least one other human being but excluding any addressee.

Tagalog also distinguishes between singular and plural forms of ‘you’. In centuries past, English used to do this, using thou and ye. Informal varieties of English have also innovated ways to make this distinction: y’all, yous, you guys, and even yous guys. Somehow, maybe because of these innovated ways to convey the plural in the second person, I didn’t feel the need for English to be like Tagalog in terms of just one addressee as opposed to more than one.

Later in my career, I was invited to write a foreword to a book on the Ilianen Manobo language (page vii in Hazel J. Wrigglesworth, Ampatuan Ampalid, Letipà Andaguer, & Adriano Ambangan, Narrative episodes from the Tulalang epic. Manila: Linguistic Society of the Philippines, 2008). Ilianen makes a distinction that Tagalog and English do not. Like Tagalog, it attests inclusive and exclusive ‘we’ forms. However, it also distinguishes between a pronoun that refers only to the speaker plus one addressee (often called the inclusive dual) and another that denotes the same two people plus at least one other. Thus, Ilianen Manobo uses three forms of the first-person plural. One of these excludes any addressees; the next denotes just the speaker and one addressee; and the third includes the speaker, one addressee, and at least one additional human being. This distinction between inclusive pronouns that consist of two as opposed to more is now called a minimal vs. augmented system of grammatical number. Instead of singular vs. plural, which counts (one as opposed to two or more), the distinction is whether it’s the minimum number of participants. In the second and third persons, as well as the exclusive first person, the minimum is indeed just one, whereas in the inclusive, the minimal number is the conversational dyad, whereas at least three people is augmented.

September 5, 2021

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