February 15, 2013
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 Marathi, Rajasthani, Sindhi, 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).