lingusits: are there any languages w/o a first person?

^^ If so, how would they be translated? I remember my readings on Nietzsche (maybe the geneology of morals or ecci homo) about him blaming something or otehr on the egotism of the language and “I”. Thus, my question.

a related issue:
Does anybody here know Japanese? (I sure don’t!) . But I once heard that in Japanese it is considered impolite to use the word “I”. Instead of saying “I drove the car”, Japanese uses the passive “the car was driven by me”

This was in some article I once read about the difficulties American businessmen had with Japanese culture. The point was that the Japanese value polite cooperation, not competition-while Amercans are the opposite. Even their language stresses the un-importance of the individual as a passive observer, not active do-er.

But even if it is true, it doesnt account for the Jap’s long history of ferocity in combat from the Samurai through WWII. So I doubt if human nature is much affected by any specific language,where use of the first person may or may not be considered “egotism”


anyway i thinkt he sapir-whorf thesis said something about humn nature and language. this is more of a bump than anything.

Japanese has several forms of the first person pronoun; watashi (standard ‘I’), watakutashi (formal ‘I’), atashi (feminine ‘I’), boku (masculine ‘I’), ore (vulgar ‘I’), and temae (humble ‘I’), but in spoken Japanese, it is common to omit pronouns, except when necessary for clarity.

More info…

Be careful about applying psychological/sociological/cultural assumptions to differences in language. Sometimes, that’s just how we/they say it.

It’s common in Japanese to omit the subject of a sentence, whether it’s a proper name, pronoun, or common noun, if the subject is obvious to the listener.

As for the OP’s question…

I’ve been Googling, but so far haven’t come across any references to human languages without first-person pronouns.

If there is/were such a language, though, how does/would a speaker refer to itself?

One way would be, uh, ‘Gollum-speak’, perhaps, but one could argue that ‘my Precious’ is really a first-person pronoun.

One could always use ‘one’ in place of the missing ‘I’… rather vague, though.

The speaker could merely use their own name instead of a first-person pronoun.

English: I want to hold your hand.
Japanese: Want to hold hands.
Gollum-speak: My Precious wants to hold its handsesesessss.
Vaguelish: One wants to hold another one’s hand.
NoEgolese: gluteus maximus wants to hold (Name’s) hand.

Of course, in translation, we’d adjust everything to make sense from our own linguistic point of view, so we’d probably just insert ‘I’, where necessary.

Never heard of Japanese using the passive for the sake of politeness. (I studied Japanese) If there was the need to be polite the Japanese would use either the “humble” forms of verbs and nouns, when referring to themselves and their actions (eg *mairu * instead of kuru, come), or the honorific for the actions of other people (eg irassharu for *iku * go, *kuru * come, *iru * be).

What do you use ore for? I’m imagining something like, “Hey dude! I[sub]vulgar[/sub] may be a ho, but your[sub]vulgar[/sub] mama’s a bigger ho!”

Well, that’s not too far off, semantically.

I guess I should have typed ‘rough’ or ‘rude’ or ‘unrefined’ instead of ‘vulgar’, since ‘vulgar’ in English is a bit different than ‘vulgar’ in Japanese.

Let’s put it this way; ore is used between men in manly situations…

A Japanese man isn’t likely to say ore when speaking to a woman, but he’ll say ore when he wants to appear tough when speaking to a man.

Do you count constructed languages? If so, see Elkaril.

There are probably real-world languages without “I”, but I can’t think of any.

In Korean, somehow they leave out both the subject pronoun and the object pronoun, and just say the verb alone.

For example, to say “I love you,” Koreans would just say Sarang haeyo. This is nothing but the verb ‘love’ in the active present tense, meaning (somebody) loves (somebody). Korean verbs, like Japanese verbs, are not conjugated for person or number. How the Koreans are supposed to understand that Sarang haeyo means specifically 'I love you" instead of “Fibber McGee loves Molly” is a mystery to me.

Korean does have first and second person pronouns, but for some reason they prefer not to use them. You could put them into the example sentence to make it say explicitly “I love you” : Nae-ga no-rul sarang haeyo. In which na means ‘I’ and no means ‘you’. Although this sentence is correct according to the rules of Korean grammar, for some reason they don’t talk like this.

In Malay they have lots of different personal pronouns for the 1st and 2nd person, but they don’t use them as much. Instead, they substitute words that tell the position or relationship of the speaker and the addressee. For example, a child speaking to a parent will substitute his name for ‘I’ and “Mom” or “Dad” for ‘you’. A parent speaking to a child will say “Mom” or “Dad” instead of “I” and use the child’s name instead of “you.” A student speaking to a professor will say “student” instead of “I” and “Professor” instead of “you.” And so on. Since the verbs are not inflected for person or number, it works the same either way.

In spoken Thai the first person is often omitted. And they don’t really use auxillary verbs much, anyway (in spoken form). So “I am going shopping” just becomes “going shopping”. “I am hungry” is just “hungry”. But it’s not something you can’t do in the language, it’s just not really spoken that way since it’s apparent it’s the speaker who is going shopping or who is hungry. If it were a question, “Are you hungry?” there is a question word added so that there is no doubt, sort of like “Hungry, no?”

Samuel R. Delany in the novel Babel-17 used an artificial language with no first-person as an important plot device (the language being “Babel-17”). But I’ve never heard of an actual language, natural or artificial, entirely omitting the first person

Well English is kinda like this now. People will say “I’m going shopping” but the “I’m” part can nearly disappear depending on how it’s said so that you really only hear “going shopping”. There’s only a little vowel inflection before “going”.

The passive form is used more often in polite speech. For instance, “Mr. Tanaka came” can be said:
Tanaka-san ni koraremashita.
Here, “koraremashita” is the passive form of “kuru” (to come). It’s more polite than simply:
Tanaka-san ga kimashita.

The various personal pronouns in Japanese are like clothes. You wear different ones for different occasions. I disagree that “ore” wouldn’t be used by someone talking to a woman - I hear (and use) it all the time. It is, however, rough and masculine. You use “ore” when you want to avoid either the boyish undertones of “boku”, the relative formality of “watashi”, or when you don’t want to pass for an old fart with “washi”. It certainly doesn’t need to be vulgar like coffecat’s example.

One of the most classic examples of personal pronouns in Japanese is the title of Soseki Natsume’s masterpiece: “Wagahai wa neko dearu”. In English this is, and can only be, translated as: “I am a cat”. This translation completely fails to convey the ridiculously pompous undertones of “wagahai”.

In languages like Japanese, the very concept of “person” does not make as much sense as in English. In English’s basic SVO structure, the relationship of the subject to the speaker is very important. However, the structure of Japanese is theme-complement-verb. (At least according to followers of Akira Mikami.) Subject is relegated to mere complement and is not of central importance. As such, the concept of “person” is not very important, or useful when talking about Japanese grammar.

One of my Japanese teachers remarked that in French, it’s not uncommon for people to specify three times the subject in a sentence. “Moi je mange du sushi.” “I eat sushi.” “I” is specified by the pronoun “je”, emphasized by the addition of “moi” and further indicated by the conjugation of the verb “manger”. In Japanese, you’d just say “sushi wo taberu.

Can’t really imagine a human culture without some degree of individuation, but the Maori might have been the closest before they were exposed to ‘civilization’. Who knows what kinds of I-deas they’ve adopted now. It would seem that, at birth, the human infant would logically progress from an awareness of we-are-not to the realization that I-am. If we postulate a culture of pure telepaths, some sort of group mind might develop that would obviate the concept of individuality. But I don’t see that in itself would make their written language substantially more difficult to translate; there would just be some concepts for which we would have no experiential references.

I remember my German teacher saying that, as a native German speaker, she was raken aback by the English language’s capitalisation on ‘I’, whereas ‘you’ is lower case. She found that to be totally arse-about. I tend to agree.

Er… “taken” aback.

Literally, "(Somebody) eats sushi (but don’t ask me to specify who, figure it out for yourself).

Maori does have a 1st person singular pronoun: ahau. What makes you think it wouldn’t?

German has a way of capitalizing 2nd person pronouns: Du, Sie, Ihr, Ihn.

I have read that the reason for capitalizing the 1st person pronoun in English is not some orthographic egotism, as so many people assume, but the influence in Middle English of the French je, which is written with j. In the Middle Ages, before j was recognized as a letter in its own write, it was thought of as just a variant of i. It was called “long i” (as it still is in Italian). So another way of writing the letter i long is to make it uppercase.

Ayn Rand in Anthem did it first with a collectivist-communistic world were the first person singular pronoun was eliminated from society.

Of course, Bob Dole created his own variant of English by eliminating the first person singular and only referring to himself in the third person.

“Bob Dole won’t raise taxes.” - Bob Dole.

Du is only capitalized because it’s usually at the beginning of a sentence as it is only used as a subject. Dich, the object form of du, is not usually at the beginning of sentences and is hence seldom capitolized.


Ich liebe dich. (I love you)
Du liebst mich. (You love me)
Wir sind eine glückliche Familie (We’re a happy family) Sorry!

Wo wohnst du? (Where do you live)