Let’s make a language – Part 8a: Pronouns (Intro)

Pronouns are, at the most basic level, words that stand in for other words. Think of “he” or “them” in English. Those words don’t really mean anything by themselves. They usually have to be said with reference to some other thing, like “a man” or “a bunch of kids”. A few of them, like “someone”, don’t, that’s true, but most pronouns do tend to refer to another noun.

Also, the definition of “pronoun” covers more ground than you might think. And the way this ground is divided up varies from one language to another. Sure, it’s obvious that the examples above are pronouns, but so are words like “these” and “who”. However, some languages don’t have an equivalent to “these”, because they don’t need a plural form of “this”. The word for “who” might be different, too, based on various factors. So let’s take a look at all the kinds of pronouns we can find in a language, all those that might fit in a conlang.

Getting personal

The most well-known class of pronouns has to be the personal ones, exemplified by words like English “he”, “she”, and “us”. Despite the name, these don’t necessarily refer to people (“it” normally doesn’t, for example), but they match up fairly well with the person distinction on verbs, where the first person is the speaker, the second is the listener, and the third is everybody else.

That’s the ideal situation, anyway. In practice, even the three-way person distinction can be a bit nebulous. Some languages have two sets of third-person pronouns, one each for those things close by (proximate) and far away (obviative); the latter is sometimes called “fourth person”. We’re off to a good start, aren’t we?

For many languages, pronouns are distinguished in most or all of the ways that nouns are, whether by number, gender, case, or whatever else. In quite a few, they actually have finer distinctions than ordinary nouns. English is one of these, as its pronouns can be marked for case (“we” versus “us”) and gender and even animacy (masculine “he”, feminine “she”, inanimate neuter “it”, and—informally—animate neuter “they”).

Personal pronouns also often show contrasts in ways that are relatively rare for common nouns. Honorific or formal pronouns are common, mostly in the second person. Spanish Usted is an example, as are the many possibilities in Japanese. Animacy is another case of this, as you can see in the English example above. And the first person can come in inclusive and exclusive forms, depending on whether “we” is supposed to include the listener.

Beyond the basic three (or four) persons, we have a few other odds and ends. Impersonal pronouns exist in many languages; the English form is “one”, which isn’t much used in modern speech. Generic pronouns, like the “you” that has largely supplanted impersonal “one”, are a close relative. You can have reflexive pronouns, like the “-self” group, which refer to…well, themselves. Emphatic pronouns, in English, take the same forms as reflexives, but they’re meant to emphasize a specific noun, rather than simply refer to it: “I will go myself.” Possessive pronouns are another important class. Languages with case might treat them as genitive forms of personal pronouns, but they could also be independent. And finally, a reciprocal pronoun (English “each other”) pops up in many places, specifically to deal with a single situation.


The demonstratives are another group of pronouns. This is the group that includes English “this” and “that”, used to refer to a specific, known instance of something. English has a pair of these, a bit like the proximate/obviative split mentioned earlier. “This” is for nearby things, while “that” is used to refer to something at a distance. We can add a third degree into this—as in Spanish, for example—either between “this” and “that” or beyond both of them, like “yonder”, which is non-standard in most dialects, but not mine. Four or even five contrasting degrees of distance aren’t unheard of, either, and a few languages have none at all.

Questions and others

Interrogative pronouns, like English “who” and “what”, are used to form questions. (We’ll see exactly how that’s done in a later post.) We use these when referring to a noun we don’t know, as when we ask, “What is it?” This class isn’t limited to people and things, either. Many languages have specific pronouns to ask about time (“when”), place (“where”), and reasons (“why”), among others.

It’s also common to derive a few other pronouns from the interrogatives. Relative pronouns, for those languages that have them, often come from the question words: “the man who hired me”. Relative clauses are worth a whole post by themselves, though, so we’ll hold off further discussion about them.

The indefinite pronouns, on the other hand, we’ll talk about right now. They’re a big group of words that tend to be derived in some fashion. Some languages, like English, make them out of interrogatives, as in “somewhere” or “anyhow”. Others, like English (funny how that works out), create them from generic nouns like “thing” or “one”: “someone”, “nothing”, “everyday”, “anybody”. And then a few of them have special cases, as in Spanish algo “something”, which is a morpheme to itself.

The making of

In form, pronouns can take just about any shape. They can be separate words that function as nouns in their own right, as they are in many languages. They can appear as verbal suffixes, as is the case in polysynthetic tongues. Or they could be a mix of these.

One interesting notion we can discuss here is the idea of pro-drop, omitting pronouns that would be redundant due to verbal conjugations or other factors. We don’t have it in English—pronouns are always required—but it’s one of the first grammatical aspects students learn about Spanish, and many other languages allow it. Japanese might be considered an extreme example of pro-drop, as context allows—and decorum sometimes requires—a speaker to omit subject pronouns, object pronouns, and any other extraneous bits.

As far as the specific sounds used to create a pronoun, there are a couple of trends. Quite a few languages, for example, have a first-person pronoun with a front nasal sound like /m/, and many of those then go on to have a second-person pronoun with a central consonant like /t/ or /s/. Most European languages show this pattern (Spanish me/te; English me/thee; German mich/dich), enough to make you think it’s an Indo-European thing. But then you have Finnish, a Uralic language, with minä/sinä. And then WALS gives the example of Nanai, a language of eastern Siberia: mi/si. Clearly, there’s some process at work here. That is also made clear by a contrary trend, where the first person shows /n/, the second /m/. This one is more widespread in America, with occasional occurrences elsewhere in the world, in unrelated languages.

For your information

When making a conlang, pronouns can be a hassle to get right. Their very definition lends itself very well to a mechanical approach, especially in agglutinating languages, where you can just attach the right markers to some generic base. It’s harder to make a full set like English, where just about every personal pronoun on the chart has a different history.

The personal pronouns are probably the easiest, though it’s not exactly hard to go overboard. Indefinites, relatives, and all the rest aren’t as necessary at the start, if only because the things you’d most likely say in the early stages won’t need them. But they shouldn’t be too far behind, because they’re no less useful.

Remember that pronouns often follow a paradigm, but there are plenty of irregularities. In natural languages, that’s from borrowing, sound change, and all the other natural factors of linguistic evolution. But there are languages out there with very regular pronoun systems, too.

Future reference

The next post in this series will have all the pronouns you could ever want for Isian and Ardari. Since this post covered most of the theory, there won’t be that much left to do, so we’ll get words, words, and more words. After that, we’ll move to the things that we call prepositional phrases, which aren’t always what they seem.

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