Chapter 16: Person syncretism in independent personal pronouns

Feature information for this chapter can be found in feature 16.

1. Person syncretism

Most languages have distinct independent personal pronoun forms for the three persons in both singular and plural, e.g. French (singular) moi, toi, lui/elle, (plural) nous, vous, eux/elles.

But in some languages, there is person syncretism, i.e. there is a form in the paradigm of independent personal pronouns that serves for more than one person. (Alternatively, one could say that the forms for two different persons are homonymous.) This is cross-linguistically unusual and therefore of particular interest. An example of 1st/2nd person syncretism in the plural is Haitian Creole nou 'we, you (pl)', and an example of 2nd/3rd person syncretism in the plural is Seychelles Creole zot 'you (pl), they'. In APiCS, person syncretism occurs only in the plural, in line with the well-known generalization that the singular tends to make more grammatical distinctions than the plural (Greenberg 1966: 27, Croft 2003: 95-96).

Some languages also have other forms of syncretism, such as number syncretism (lack of singular-plural distinction, as in Standard English you) or gender syncretism (lack of masculine-feminine-neuter distinction, as in English they, contrasting with the distinction between he, she and it in the singular). In this chapter, only person syncretism is considered.

This chapter distinguishes three types of languages (with only a single choice being possible): no person syncretism, syncretism between first and second person, and syncretism between second and third person.

No person syncretism68
Syncretism between 1st and 2nd person3
Syncretism between 2nd and 3rd person5

2. No person syncretism

The great majority of the APiCS languages have no person syncretism (value 1). Some examples of typical paradigms of personal pronouns are given in Tables 1-2.

T 1.
Independent personal pronouns in Afrikaans (van Sluijs 2013)
singular plural
1ek ons
2jy julle
3hy, sy, dit hulle
T 2.
Independent personal pronouns in Cavite Chabacano (Sippola 2013a)
singular plural
1yo nisos
2vo, tu, uste vusos, ustedes
3ele ilos
T 3.
Independent personal pronouns in Yimas-Arafundi Pidgin (Foley 2013)
singular dual plural
1ama kapa paŋgət (asəŋ)
2mi mi asəŋ
3mən mən manba

3. First and second person plural syncretism

Three languages in the Caribbean region have syncretism between first and second person (value 2). Their personal pronoun paradigms are given in Tables 4-6.

T 4.
Independent personal pronouns in Haitian Creole (Fattier 2013)
singular plural
1mwen nou
2ou nou
3li yo

Haitian Creole shows some variation: According to Fattier (1996), in some dialects the form zot is attested, which has a 2nd person plural use, but no 1st person use (however, it can also be used in a 3rd person sense, so that it shows another type of syncretism, as discussed in the next section). The 1st person plural form nou clearly derives from French nous, but the 2nd person plural form nou seems to come from an African form (Igbo únù, Temne nu, or Adioukrou uno; see Goodman 1964: 41, Boretzky 1983: 35, 109). The syncretism is thus historically a result of accidental homonymy.

The form unu/un/u for the second person plural is also found in many English-based creoles, but in two languages, Sranan and Nengee (both spoken in Suriname), it can also be used in a first-person-plural sense:

T 5.
Independent personal pronouns in Sranan (Plag & Winford 2013)
singular plural
1mi unu, wi
2ju, i unu
3a, en den
T 6.
Independent personal pronouns in Nengee (Migge 2013)
singular plural
1mi, m u, wi
2yu, i u
3a, en de(n)

We see that Sranan and Nengee have the alternative (and older) form wi for the first person plural. In fact, in Early Sranan, unu is not attested with first person plural use, so the use of u(nu) for the first person plural seems to be secondary. The extension of u(nu) to the first person may be related to the fact that some West African languages have similar or identical forms for first and second person plural (e.g. Fongbe 1pl, 2pl, Goodman 1964: 41). Lefebvre (1998: 142) also attributes the syncretism between first and second person plural in Haitian Creole to the influence from the Fongbe pattern; if this were correct, we would not need to assume Igbo influence in Haitian, and the similarity between Haitian nou (2pl) and Sranan unu (2pl) would be accidental.

4. Second and third person plural syncretism

The three French-based creoles of the Indian Ocean, the African contact language Sango, and Ambon Malay have syncretism between second and third person (value 3). Table 7 shows the paradigm of Sango.

T 7.
Independent personal pronouns in Sango (Samarin 2013)
singular plural
1mbi e, i
2mo ala
3lo ala

In Sango, originally e was the first person plural form, and i was the second person plural form (Diki-Kidiri 1977: 64-65). These tended to be confused for phonological reasons, and ala was extended from the third person plural form to express the second person plural as well. In Ambon Malay, the form is dorang (or the shortened version dong), derived from dia ‘(s)he’ plus orang ‘person’, i.e. the third plural use is primary.

In the French-based creoles of the Indian Ocean, the extension seems to have gone in the other direction. Table 8 shows the paradigm of Mauritian Creole. The form zot derives from regional French vous autres 'you (pl)' (cf. Spanish vosotros).

T 8.
Independent personal pronouns in Mauritian Creole (Baker & Kriegel 2013)
singular plural
1mwa nu
2twa, u zot
3li zot

In Seychelles Creole, the plural paradigm is the same (nou, zot, zot). Reunion Creole has an alternative form bannla (made up of bann 'group, pl' and la 'definite') for the third person plural pronoun, perhaps introduced in order to differentiate the third from the second person.

It is possible that the third person plural form zot derives from a third person form in French (eux autres, or les autres), but such forms are not common in French in a pronominal sense, unlike vous autres. Moreover, French creoles of the Caribbean tend to have zot for the second person plural (cf. the Guadeloupean plural paradigm: nou, zòt, yo), and the extension to the third person is a development that is typical of the Indian Ocean varieties. For some reason, the original third person plural form eux (cf. Haitian and Guadeloupean yo) is not found in the French-based creoles of the Indian Ocean.

5. Macrofunctionality or homonymy

There are two ways of describing cases like Haitian Creole nou 'we; you (pl)' synchronically: as a single (macrofunctional) form with two renderings into English, or as two (homonymous) forms that happen to have the same shape. The term syncretism is used here, in preference to homonymy, because it makes no assumption about the correct description. It is quite possible that the syncretism is synchronically accidental (e.g. because Haitian Creole borrowed an African form and ended up with a 2pl form nou that happened to be identical to the descendant of French nous). But it is also possible, and in fact likely, that the syncretism is not accidental even synchronically. As Cysouw (2003: 123-134) notes, both 1st-2nd person syncretism and 2nd-3rd person syncretism occur elsewhere in the world's languages. Such cases are not frequent, but not extremely rare either. It may well be best to characterize forms like nou as "non-third person forms", and forms like zot as "non-first person forms".