What is a Pronoun?

Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

The acquisition of pronouns has been a key concern in language acquisition research for many decades. Children acquiring English produce errors in gender and case (Rispoli 1994) and binding (Hamann 2011). All of this research was done without stopping to consider whether the English results extend to other languages. From a comparative perspective we should first establish whether pronouns serve as a valid unit of crosslinguistic comparison. Otherwise, we risk mistaking surface features of English for language universals.

Pronouns are just one of the ways that languages use to refer to the participants in a state or event. Anna Siewierska (2004) surveys the devices that language use to mark person in her book Person. It turns out that languages vary tremendously in the sheer number of pronouns they use. The language Madurese has two pronouns (sengkoq “I/me” and tang “my”), whereas Fijian has 135 pronouns. The Mayan language Mam does not have any pronouns (England 1983). What accounts for these differences?

Languages can’t seem to resist marking more than person on their person markers. Take gender, for example. English marks a gender distinction for third person pronouns (he, she, it), but other languages mark gender for first and second (Arabic and Hebrew) persons as well. The Mayan language K’iche’ as well as Finnish and Turkish do not mark pronouns for gender.

Number is another feature that many languages add to person marking on pronouns. English marks number for first and third person, but not for second person pronouns. Languages make different number distinctions. Fijian, for example, has dual and trial pronouns in addition to “plural” pronouns. These number distinctions explain why Fijian has so many pronouns.

People enter into many types of social relations that can become marked on the pronouns in a language. European languages make a formality distinction on second person pronouns (tu/vous) that marks whether you are addressing a close friend or family member. Compare these distinctions with those in Thai that mark deference, assertiveness, age, sex and kinship. Thai has 27 first person forms, 22 second person forms and 8 third person forms (Cooke 1968).

The Aboriginal languages of Australia have complex kinship patterns. Hale (1966:320) describes the distinction that Lardil marks for exhaustively harmonic and non-harmonic generations. The harmonic generations include yourself and your grandparents and grandchildren. Your non-harmonic generations would be your parents and children. The second person plural harmonic pronoun is ki-li, while the second person plural non-harmonic pronoun is ki-lmu.

Children acquire pronouns in all of these languages and therefore learn all of the distinctions in gender, person, number, deference, sex, kinship and many others that Siewierska discusses in her book. The pronominal distinctions that languages make show that we have much to learn about children’s capacity for acquiring language. There is every reason to think that some pronouns are not like the others and, therefore, the label “pronoun” is not a valid unit for crosslinguistic comparison.


Cooke, Joseph R. 1968. Pronominal Reference in Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese. University of California Publications in Linguistics 52. Berkeley: University of California Press.

England, Nora C. 1983. A Grammar of Mam, A Mayan Language. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Hale, Ken. 1966. Kinship reflections in syntax. Word 22: 318-324.

Hamann, Cornelia. 2011. Binding and coreference: views from child language. In J. de Villiers and T. Roeper (Eds.), Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition, Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics 41, 247-289. Springer.

Rispoli, Matthew. 1994. Pronoun case overextension and paradigm building. Journal of Child Language 26: 357-372.

Siewierska, Anna. 2004. Person. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jan. 21, 2018

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