Greek & English Pronouns and Linguistic Typology

This post does not seek to provide any sort of new or exciting insight into Hellenistic Greek. The main goal is to help situation the language among other languages in terms what’s the same and what’s different.

D. N. S. Bhat (2004, 1-15) proposes that the primary typological division among languages divides them into two person languages and three person languages. He further argues that the majority of languages are of the former type, not the latter. This distinction is motivated by two factors.

  1. Formal (morphological & lexical) differences:
    • Some languages use parallel or similar forms for all three pronouns and other languages.
    • Other languages have parallel or similar forms for the 1st and 2nd person pronouns only and the 3rd person patterns closer to another pro-form (the demonstrative is common for this).
  2. Pragmatic factors in pronoun usage. The standard/traditional definition of a pronoun as a word that stands for a noun or noun phrase does not work for 1st and 2nd person pronouns in the same way that it does for 3rd person forms.
    • 1st and 2nd person pronouns cannot be replaced by a noun phrase while 3rd person forms can:
      • “I have been studying pronouns for six months.” vs. “The speaker has been studying pronouns for six months.”
    • In the second sentence, the audience would either assume “the speaker” referred to some other speaker perhaps at a conference session. The change from pronoun to NP also brings a change in propositional content of the sentence. Conversely, 3rd person pronouns can be freely interchanged with noun phrases with no change in propositional content:
    • At a basic level, 1st and 2nd person pronouns are interlocutive (i.e. involve the interlocutors of a discourse) in nature while third person pronouns (like demonstratives and other classes of pro-forms) are substitutive in nature.

Now I would suggest that English and Greek are generally representative of each system, Greek being a two person language and English being a three person language. We see this in the morphological forms of the two languages. While Hellenistic Greek 3rd person pronoun follows the same inflectional pattern as the demonstrative and article, the language has a unique inflection system limited only to the 1st and 2nd person forms—[updated & corrected; see comments] though it must be noted that Classical Greek was a three person language with the 3rd person pronoun paralleling the 1st and 2nd. This shifted to the system we find in the Hellenistic period:

1st Singular 1st Plural 2nd Singular 2nd Plural
n ἐγώ ἡμεῖς σύ ὑμεῖς
g ἐμοῦ / μου ἡμῶν σου / σου ὑμῶν
d ἐμοί / μοι ἡμῖν σοί / σοι ὑμῖν
a ἐμέ / με ἡμᾶς σέ / σε ὑμᾶς

In contrast, the English personal pronoun system connects the 3rd person to other two persons rather than the demonstrative (this goes back to Old English):

Singular Plural
1st I me we us
2nd you you you you
Masc he him
3rd Fem she her they them
Neut it it

2 thoughts on “Greek & English Pronouns and Linguistic Typology

Add yours

  1. ἑός is not the 3rd person singular older Greek pronoun but a pronominal adjective. Rather the 3rd person singular is: gen. οὗ (enclitic οὑ – older  ἕο, ἑο), dat. οἷ (enclitic οἱ), acc. ἕ (enclitic ἑ). The older root appears to be σϝε; this is related to the Latin reflexive and is the source of the aspiration in the 3rd-person reflexive ἑαυτοῦ/αὑτοῦ κτλ. Wiktionary is not altogether accurate. See Smyth §325 and the notes there; Smyth is much more reliable.

    I wonder too about the way Italian and German use 3rd-person pronouns (and verbs) ‘lei’ and “Sie” in formal speech (as opposed to ‘tu’ or ‘voi’, ‘Du’ and ‘Ihr’).
    Also, although it has always seemed to me an affectation, I’ve observed several instances of people referring to themselves and their actions in 3rd-person phraseology, sometimes even using a demonstrative: “This author has observed not a few instances of this obnoxious behavior on the part of XYZ.”

    I have to say that I am rather skeptical of this sort of blanket generalization about languages; I always wonder how many the generalizer knows and how well he or she knows them.

    1. Thanks for the correction on the 3rd person forms. My initial memory & instinct was that Classical Greek had three parallel personal pronouns, but in double checking, I went to the wrong place.

      As for the use of speakers using the third person, it is quite clearly non-standard usage and could probably be explained relatively easily. For example, the use of the phrase “This author” seems to me a result of the distance between writer and read so that the writer (because he is not actually present) does not necessarily need to be viewed as an interlocutor. Authors also use the the plural “we” at times in writing, but I would never venture to say on the basis of that the it is unreasonable to claim that plurals 1st person pronouns across languages refer to multiple people.

      I know you’re rather skeptical. Sometimes I understand it and sometimes I don’t. Personally, I’m more skeptical about supposed reconstructions of PIE than I am about typological statements. In any case, I’d venture a guess that Bhat knows at least five or six languages himself.

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