Does Clusivity Affect the Way We Think?

English, like most languages across Europe and Africa, lacks what linguists call clusivity, the distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person pronouns.

When you say We are going to a bar later tonight” in English, the person you are talking to doesn’t know whether the we includes them or not.

At least not without additional context.

In contrast, northern dialects of Mandarin distinguish between the inclusive 咱們  (zánmen – “me, one or more other people and you”) and exclusive 我們 (wǒmen –  “me, one or more others, but not you”).

Granted that the distinction is maintained rigidly only in northern dialects of Mandarin, but there are many more languages, mostly across the Americas, Austronesia and Australia, that have clusivity.

In fact, the inclusive-exclusive distinction is a very common language feature overall: it is very common in India (among the Dravidian and Munda languages, also the Indo-European MarathiRajasthaniSindhi, and Gujarati), America (where about half the languages have it) and nearly universal among the Austronesian languages and the languages of northern Australia.

Still, given the obvious utility of linguistic clusivity, I wonder why it is absent from nearly all major world languages.

If you believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (roughly saying that language shapes thought), you might wonder if the ambiguity of “we” could have helped shape our society through the ages.

Perhaps next time your local politician says “Yes, we can” – you should ask them about who exactly is included in that statement.

(image taken from Wikipedia).

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Comments (3)

  • bostjan February 16, 2013 

    Thank you for the intriguing reading. Indeed i agree that there’s something to the way we talk and communicate that reflects our thinking and vice versa in the ears of the receiver. Like ripples or like white noise if you want. Pronunciation is melodic in languages in different ways. I would boldly say that pronunciation drives a part of ethnicity in ethno music just like spices drive distinctiveness in world cuisine. Pronunciation is the main channel for emotions in the bandwidth of verbal communication and is native to each language.
    Try to listen to someone and take the meaning out of the words. You’ll hear music. And by listening to that music you would still understand the fear, the anger or the love. Those feelings would generate your inner thoughts. By having similar thoughts later on you could end up singing the same music to someone through the same old songs. When white people rock, black people rap.
    Languages were made by cultures not by God. That’s why we have so many of them.

  • bostjan February 16, 2013 

    And sincere apologies for missing out the “We” challenge. How would you reflect to the Slovene equivalent “#gotofje” through clusitivity?

  • Tadej Gregorcic February 16, 2013 

    I guess #gotovismo would be an example =).

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