The curious case of clusivity marking

This is the third in a series of essays examining how language diversity affects the needs of Bible translation around the world and how Rachel and Michael Aubrey’s work with Wycliffe Bible Translators will help alleviate some of these challenges. For the introduction see: We need new language resources for translation.

In our previous post in this series, we talked about some common patterns for person marking that were relevant to Semitic (like Hebrew) and Indo-European languages (like English and Greek), particularly.

Imagine you and I and are in a group of people debating where we want to go out for lunch. Currently there are two options: a delicious Thai restaurant far away vs. a cheap fast food place just around the corner. The crowd is split. Half the people prioritize convenience over quality. You and I, of course, are in agreement: obviously Thai is the only legitimate option here. You stand up and say:

“Look, we all agree that we need food right. We’re hungry. It’s lunch time. However, regardless of whatever everyone else is doing, we are making the 15-minute drive for Thai. We need that peanut sauce.”

Did you catch what just happened there? There are, effectively, two different types of “we”’s in that little speech. One “we” refers to you and me, the people making the right meal choice. It is exclusive and cuts out anyone who doesn’t want Thai food. The other “we” refers to the entire group of people in the room. It is inclusive. They represent a difference in scope that plural marking has on the referents. Now, English does not make this distinction. Nor does Hebrew or Greek.

Here, we would like to expand our discussion to some fascinating linguistic phenomena that appear across a wide variety of languages all over the world: clusivity marking. That’s a linguistic term that encompasses the two types of pronoun that appear in the languages of the world: inclusive pronouns and exclusive pronouns. This distinction is limited to first person plural pronouns. It appears in languages as a means of making more nuanced distinctions in participant reference.

If the data provided in the World Atlas of Language Structure ( can be characterized  as a representative sample of the world’s languages (and, for the record, I do not know if it is), then this kind of clusivity marking appears in roughly 1/3 of languages around the world. Regardless of the actual ratio of languages, it is a substantial number. Clusivity marking is common.

Since biblical languages do not make this distinction in their grammar, translators in languages with clusivity marking must make these judgments on the basis of context.

Some of you are probably aware that Ancient Greek in earlier periods had a dual form that functioned between the singular and the plural, but that is not what’s happening here.*

* There are actually a few uses of the dual in some first century writers, but it is not a vernacular expression at this point in history. See for example, Josephus’ Wars of the Jews 5.73: τὼ χεῖρε καὶ τὰς πανοπλίας παρέντες.

This kind of contrast requires interpretive choices every single time there are 1st person plural forms in the biblical text. What is the clusivity of a clause like Matt 17:4?

  1. Κύριε, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι·
    Lord, it is good that we are here.

When Peter says ἡμᾶς, is he including Jesus? Or is he only talking about everyone else except Jesus? This verse is probably exclusive: it is good that Peter, James, and John are here so that they can build the tents for Jesus and Moses. And that’s what the translators of the Yagua (a Saparo–Yawan language in Peru) New Testament did. You can read it (or at least look at it!) at

Or consider Mark 9:38.

  1. Διδάσκαλε, εἴδομέν τινα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματί σου ἐκβάλλοντα δαιμόνια, καὶ ἐκωλύομεν αὐτόν, ὅτι οὐκ ἠκολούθει ἡμῖν.
    Teacher, we saw someone expelling demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.

Translators typically choose the exclusive form for the first two instances 1st person plurals: we saw and we tried…, but then for the third one: not following us (ἡμῖν), it is common for different translations to split on the question. The Tok Pisin (the trade language of Papua New Guinea) New Testament, uses the inclusive pronoun, so as to also include Jesus as a referent to ἡμῖν at the end of the statement. Translators need to make these judgments every single time.

In the Hebrew Old Testament and Septuagint, the situation is the same. Consider Joshua 22:31.

  1. Today we know that the Lord is among us, because you have not committed this treachery against the Lord; now you have saved the Israelites from the hand of the Lord.

Σήμερον ἐγνώκαμεν ὅτι μεθʼ ἡμῶν κύριος, διότι οὐκ ἐπλημμελήσατε ἐναντίον κυρίου πλημμέλειαν καὶ ὅτι ἐρρύσασθε τοὺς υἱοὺς Ισραηλ ἐκ χειρὸς κυρίου.

הַיּ֤וֹם׀ יָדַ֙עְנוּ֙ כִּֽי־בְתוֹכֵ֣נוּ יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא־מְעַלְתֶּ֥ם בַּֽיהוָ֖ה הַמַּ֣עַל הַזֶּ֑ה אָ֗ז הִצַּלְתֶּ֛ם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִיַּ֥ד יְהוָֽה׃

Is the initial 1PL form  (יָדַ֙עְנוּ֙/ἐγνώκαμεν) inclusive or exclusive? Is Phineas the priest speaking here for everyone when he says, “we know”? Or perhaps he’s only speaking for the priests and the leaders of Israel? Bratcher and Newman (1983, 287) argue that both 1PL forms here must necessarily be inclusive forms, but that seems open to interpretation. Certainly, the second one is (כִּֽי־בְתוֹכֵ֣נוּ/μεθʼ ἡμῶν), but 22:30 sets up a clear contrast in groups:

  1. When the priest Phineas and the community leaders (the heads of the families of Israel who were with him) heard the words that the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manassites spoke, they were satisfied.

Treating “we know” (יָדַ֙עְנוּ֙/ἐγνώκαμεν) as exclusive is also a legitimate interpretation given that the priest is speaking on behalf of the leaders to the Reubenites and Gadites, and Manassites. This is the decision that the translators made for the Jarai language (a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by the Jarai people of Vietnam), as well as the translators for the Adamawa Fulfulde language (spoken in West and Central Africa).

Languages around the world exhibit a tremendous amount of diversity. Translation & exegetical resources designed centrally for English will not work as effectively for other languages around the world. The target language of a translation necessarily raises new questions of interpretation and exegesis that lay hidden for many English speakers. As the church continues to shift its pole of influence toward the Global South, we need to be supporting these Christian communities with exegetical tools and translation resources that deal with the unique questions that their own languages raise for the interpretation of the biblical text.

Works cited and useful resources of clusivity marking

Bratcher, Robert G., and Barclay Moon Newman. 1983. A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Joshua. UBS Handbook Series. London; New York: United Bible Societies.

Cysouw, Michael. 2009. The paradigmatic structure of person marking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simon, Horst J. 2005. Only you? Philological investigations into the alleged inclusive exclusive distinction in the second-person plural. In Elena, Clusivity: Typology and case studies of inclusive-exclusive distinction. 114-150. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Filimonova, Elena. Ed. 2005. Clusivity: Typology and case studies of inclusive-exclusive distinction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin. Eds. 2013. The world atlas of language structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Available online at, Accessed on 2020-03-16.

Rachel and Michael Aubrey have been invited by Wycliffe Bible Translators to help contribute to a new generation of digital resources for studying Biblical languages, geared directly toward these kinds of challenges. Because Wycliffe is a faith-based mission, they need people to partner with them in their Wycliffe ministry before they can begin their work. Right now they need roughly 50 more people to partner with them financially.

The readership here at represents a thoughtful and vibrant community of people with an engaging interest in biblical languages and translation.

We hope that some of you might consider joining them in their Wycliffe Ministry. If you have benefited from their writing here, perhaps you can help them give that same benefit to the global church through Bible translation. Any amount, no matter how small, will help them begin their work.