Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 4, 2019

“We” Will Rock You! (In First Person Plural Clusive)

What subject to choose to begin another year of blogging?

Travel? Architecture? The outdoors? Literature?

Let’s have some fun with grammar!

Not only that: Let’s enjoy some grammar that doesn’t even exist in English!

Why would we do such a thing? Read on to find out how “we” will rock you.

We: First Person Plural Pronoun. Easy!

We’ll rely on our basic English grammar, I promise. As we all know, the English first person plural pronoun is “we.” Whether two of us or all seven billion of us on earth do something, “we” do it.

mv 1631-nirvana goat crop ii-h 680

We few, we happy few

Whether one says, “We go to the store” or “We are such stuff as dreams are made of,” it’s “we.” The same holds for any of the billion first person sentences ever written or spoken in English since about 1400 c.e.

However, some languages make finer distinctions about “we,” and require additional words to do it.

Although you may never have thought about it, “we” can signify a variety of relationships.

Speaking to colleagues at work, I might say, “We did a really good job on that project.”

I’m referring to myself and the other people present. In that case, all of us are included in “we.”

Once I’m home, telling The Counselor about the success of the project, I can say precisely the same thing: “We did a really good job on that project.” But she is excluded from the “we.” As a native English speaker, she understands that distinction.

In English, one pronoun — “we” — works in both instances.

hip hop gerber nixon 3188 680

We danced our tails off.

Not For All, Though

Quite a few languages require different forms of the “we” pronoun, depending on whether it’s being used inclusively or exclusively. There’s an inclusive form of the pronoun when speaking to one or more people who are present and part of the action, but there’s a different, exclusive form of the pronoun if the person to whom I’m speaking isn’t among the “we.”

Among the numerous languages that require the distinction are Ainu (Japan), Chechen, Lakota, Malay, Mandarin, Punjabi, Samoan, Shawnee, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

The general term for this inclusive/exclusive distinction is “clusivity.”

It’s one small reminder of the vastly diverse linguistic world we inhabit, and how minutely we humans are able to parse our relationships and shades of meaning through language.

I occasionally have readers from Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. I’d be interested in comments about the inclusive/exclusive third person plural. Do you find it useful? Does the lack of it make English seem vague or ambiguous?

One More “We:” Dual Number

I learned about clusivity only recently. It reminded me of another unusual pronoun form I learned when I studied Old English long ago: dual number.

Back to our basic grammar. We learned about “number.” There’s singular — I, you, he, she, it — and plural: we, you, they.

A third type — dual number — was once common in Indo-European languages — including English — but has mostly fallen out of use.

Dual number specifies an action done by two people in unison. The modern English equivalent is “we two.” As an example, one might say, “We two went dancing.” In today’s English — and most other languages — it’s become regular plural number, but many languages once had separate pronouns for dual number.

mv5860_vals day rab and bear 680

Despite our different backgrounds, we two are in love.

You old rockers know an example of dual number from the canon of great works. Eric Clapton sang it in “Sunshine of Your Love:”

“Yes, I’m with you, my love; it’s the morning and just we two.”

Old English had dual number as a distinctive first person dual pronoun: wit. It faded from use as the language evolved into Middle English and became “we two.” Languages which preserve dual number pronouns include Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Slovenian.

Speaking and Reading in a Complex World

I don’t expect to learn Malay, Tagalog or Slovenian, but I believe that appreciating the staggering complexity of human language opens a path to accepting the diversity of our world. I happened to grow up speaking the language that’s become a global lingua franca. It behooves me to understand how vastly different other languages are in order to appreciate how much effort it takes to read and speak English if one’s native language has not just different vocabulary, but a radically different grammatical structure.

Living here in polyglot Los Angeles, I see plenty of signs and billboards that reflect the fact they were composed by people whose native languages don’t employ articles, make no distinction between singular and plural number, or are highly inflected and require few pronouns. I can’t speak those languages at all, and it’s no surprise that immigrants find English challenging. Let’s roll with it.

I welcome comments from speakers of Ainu, Chechen, Lakota, Malay, Mandarin, Punjabi, Samoan, Shawnee, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Slovenian about today’s post. Did I get things right? Please write in English, or I’ll be stuck using auto-translate, which isn’t as reliable as your own English.

I learned about the existence of clusivity in Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives; The Eurasiatic Language Family, Volume 1: Grammar, Joseph H. Greenberg, Stanford University Press; Stanford, California; 2000.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Two photographs © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission. “Hip Hop” sculpture copyright Georgia Gerber. This post is dedicated to B. & G., who sent me Dr. Greenberg’s book. Thank you, muchas gracias, danke.



  1. Wow! Wit were just talking about this!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Say it, see it. See what you’ve done?


  2. Wait a minute. Isn’t ‘we’ the first person plural pronoun? Third person plural is ‘they’, ‘them’, etc. Quick! edit, and delete this comment – I won’t say a word…

    What annoys me about English is the lack of distinction between second person singular and plural. Something that the Scottish have sorted out with the invention of ‘youse’. Not saying it’s a good invention, though…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Holy cow, what a stupid error. Okay. What I get for staying up late.


    • And, no, I won’t delete this. I’ll let it stand as a caution to all that one must not only write, but PROOF. Thank you. Only your friends will tell you when you’ve made a boneheaded error.
      Hmm … I thought we Amuricans invented youse. Didn’t know we brought (and here I may be including progenitors of my own) it from the auld sod.


      • When I come across ‘youse,’ I always remember the accent of my uncle from New Jersey.


      • I have the same association with any number of former Jerseyites, a lot of them from Italian American backgrounds, but not solely. And it’s a classic TV/film stereotype bit for a working class character from an urban setting like the Bronx, south Boston, etc., whether accurate or not. Did that originally get her from Scotch/Scots-Irish immigrants?
        I wear out quickly chasing slang and dialect, and don’t have the resources to do a lot, but this would be interesting to look into. I’ll report back, unless someone knows the origin and saves me the effort. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fun post! You’re off to a great start for 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not certain this fits into your discussion of clusivity and dual number, but I thought of it immediately. There are areas of Texas where “y’all” isn’t an affectation for films and television. It’s a natural part of the language, and true Texans use it, and its variations, easily. I got used to it when I lived and worked in rural areas with farmers and ranchers whose families have been on the land for generations.

    I’ve never tried to sort out the forms, but they exist. There’s “y’all,” (usually meant for whoever’s present), “all y’all” (for people both present and absent), and “y’all two” or “y’all three.” I’ve never heard ‘y’all four,” so I think that might be the point where “all y’all” becomes appropriate.

    What strikes me is how unconsciously I picked up the way to use these phrases correctly. It must be akin to how we learn our native tongues, and why it’s so difficult to explain certain constructions to non-native speakers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is off on Mr. Tickner’s beef about 2nd person limitations of English, and we’re quickly discovering (youse/y’all) we have our OWN ways of introducing complexity into our stripped-down-don’t-bother-me-with-inflections language. I’ll say more, but I’ve left it too late tonight. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

    • So … This is a subject worth pursuing, and I think I’ll take up the appalling lack of distinction between singular/plural – formal/informal 2nd person in English.
      I DO know a bit about the fact that some Americans genuinely do have y’all as an intrinsic part of speech, not something they put on to work in a restaurant or a theme park or to make it appear they’re fitting in where they don’t belong.
      I’d HEARD of “all y’all,” but I did not know it was so programmatic, nor had I encountered y’all two, etc. That’s fascinating. An entire system of inflection introduced into one dialect, when the typical course of language development is to simplify in idiosyncratic ways that eventually get adopted.
      THERE, the conversation has swung directly back into the stream of what I wrote about dual number, just in second person instead of first.
      So little time, so much to know.
      I’ll get back to y’all. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My head is spinning. You actually read that Greenberg book? Another book you read that I never even knew existed until I read your blog.


    • I am in the PROCESS of reading. I am on page 38. FINISHING may be a lifelong endeavor.


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