In linguistics, clusivity is a distinction between inclusive and exclusive first-person pronouns and verbal morphology, also called inclusive "we" and exclusive "we". Inclusive "we" specifically includes the addressee (that is, one of the words for "we" means "you and I"), while exclusive "we" specifically excludes the addressee (that is, another word for "we" means "he/she and I, but not you"), regardless of who else may be involved. While imagining that this sort of distinction could be made in other persons (particularly the second) is straightforward, in fact the existence of second person clusivity in natural languages is controversial and not well attested.[1]

First person clusivity is a common feature among Australian and Austronesian languages, and is also found in eastern, southern, and southwestern Asia, America, and in some creole languages. Some African languages also make this distinction, such as Fulfulde (Fula). No European language outside the Caucasus makes this distinction grammatically, but some constructions may be semantically inclusive or exclusive.


Schematic paradigm

Sets of reference: Inclusive form (left) and Exclusive form (right).

Clusivity paradigms may be summarized as a two-by-two grid:

Includes the addressee?
Yes No
the speaker?
Yes Inclusive we Exclusive we
No 2nd person 3rd person


In some languages, the three first-person pronouns appear to be unrelated. This is the case for Chechen, which has singular so, exclusive txo, and inclusive vai. In others, all three are related, as in Tok Pisin singular mi, exclusive mi-pela, and inclusive yu-mi (a compound of mi with yu "you") or yu-mi-pela. However, when only one of the plural pronouns is related to the singular, it may be either one. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, inclusive or exclusive wǒmen is the plural form of singular "I", while inclusive zánmen is a separate root. However, in Hadza it is the inclusive, ’one-be’e, which is the plural of the singular ’ono (’one-) "I", while the exclusive ’oo-be’e is a separate root.

It is not uncommon for two separate words for "I" to pluralize into derived forms having a clusivity distinction. For example, in Vietnamese the familiar word for "I" pluralizes to inclusive we and the polite word for "I" pluralizes into exclusive we. In Samoan, the singular form of the exclusive pronoun is the regular word for "I", while the singular form of the inclusive pronoun may also occur on its own, in which case it also means "I", but with a connotation of appealing or asking for indulgence.

Distinction in verbs

Where verbs are inflected for person, as in Australia and much of America, the inclusive-exclusive distinction can be made there as well. For example, in Passamaquoddy "I/we have it" is expressed

Singular n-tíhin (first person prefix n-)
Exclusive n-tíhin-èn (first person n- + plural suffix -èn)
Inclusive k-tíhin-èn (inclusive prefix k- + plural -èn)

In Tamil on the other hand, the two different pronouns have the same agreement on the verb.

Second person clusivity

In theory, clusivity of the second person should be a possible distinction, but its existence is controversial. Some notable linguists, such as Bernard Comrie,[2] have attested that the distinction is extant in spoken natural languages, while others, such as John Henderson,[3] maintain that the human brain does not have the capacity to make a clusivity distinction in the second person. Many other linguists take the more neutral position that it could exist but is nonetheless not currently attested.[1]

Clusivity in the second person is conceptually simple but nonetheless if it exists is extremely rare, unlike clusivity in the first. Hypothetical second person clusivity would be the distinction between "you and you (and you and you ... all present)" and "you and someone else whom I am not addressing currently." These are often referred to in the literature as "2+2" and "2+3", respectively (the numbers referring to second and third person as appropriate). Horst J. Simon provides a deep analysis of second person clusivity in his 2005 article.[1] He concludes that oft-repeated rumors regarding the existence of second person clusivity—or indeed, any [+3] pronoun feature beyond simple exclusive we[4] – are ill-founded, and based on erroneous analysis of the data.

Distribution of the clusivity distinction

The inclusive-exclusive distinction is nearly universal among the Austronesian languages and the languages of northern Australia, but rare in the Papuan languages in between. (Tok Pisin, an English-Melanesian pidgin, generally has the inclusive-exclusive distinction, but this varies with the speaker's language background.) It is widespread in India (among the Dravidian and Munda languages, as well as in the Indo-European languages of Marathi, Rajasthani, and Gujarati), and the languages of eastern Siberia, such as Evenki. In America it is found in about half the languages, with no clear geographic or genealogical pattern. It is also found in a few languages of the Caucasus and Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Fulani and Nama.[5][6]

It is of course possible in any language to express the idea of clusivity semantically, and many languages provide common forms that clarify the ambiguity of their first person pronoun (e.g. English the rest of us or Italian noialtri). A language with a true clusivity distinction, however, does not provide a first person plural with indefinite clusivity, i.e. where the clusivity of the pronoun is ambiguous—rather, the speaker is forced to specify by choice of pronoun or inflection whether he is including the addressee or not. This rules out most European languages, for example. Clusivity is nonetheless a very common language feature overall. Some languages with more than one plural number will make the clusivity distinction only in, for example, the dual, but not in the greater plural. Others will make it in all numbers. In the table below, the plural forms are the ones preferentially listed.

Examples of the clusivity distinction in specific languages
Language Inclusive form Exclusive form Singular related to Notes
Ainu a-/an- ci-  ??
Aymara jiwasa naya Exclusive The derived form jiwasanaka of the inclusive refers to at least 3 people.
Bislama yumi mifala Exclusive The inclusive form is derived from the second person pronoun and the first person pronoun. There are also dual and trial forms.
Cebuano kita kami  ?? Short forms are ta (incl.) and mi (excl.)
Chechen vai txo Neither
Dagur baa biede  ??
Evenki mit  ??
Guaraní ñandé oré Inclusive
Gujarati આપણે /aˑpəɳeˑ/ અમે /əmeˑ/  ??
Hawaiian kāua (dual); kākou (plural) māua (dual); mākou (plural)
Ilokano datayó, sitayó dakamí, sikamí  ?? The dual inclusives datá and sitá are widely used.
Kannada ನಮ್ಮ (namma) ನಂಗಳ (namgaLa)  ?? The exclusive form is no longer used in most dialects. Kannada is the only Dravidian language to have lost its clusivity distinction.
Kapampangan ikatamu ikami  ?? The dual inclusive ikata is widely used.
Kriol yunmi melabat Exclusive The inclusive form is derived from the second person pronoun and the first person pronoun. The exclusive form is derived from the first person sing. and the third person plural forms. There is significant dialectal and diachronic variation in the exclusive form.
Lakota uŋ(k)- uŋ(k)- ... -pi Neither The inclusive form has dual number. By adding the suffix "-pi" it takes the plural number. In the plural form no clusivity distinction is made.
Malagasy isika izahay
Malay (includes Indonesian) kita kami Neither The exclusive form is hardly used in colloquial informal modern Indonesian, therefore kita is very often used both to indicate both inclusive and exclusive first person. However in formal Indonesian (both spoken and written), the distinction is clear and practiced although not strictly obliged. Kami is absolutely exclusive whereas kita can generally mean both inclusive and exclusive we (although the right linguistic function is only to indicate inclusive we).
Malayalam നമ്മള് (nammaḷ) ഞങ്ങള് (ñaṅṅaḷ) Exclusive
Mandarin 咱們 (zánmen) 我們 (wǒmen) Exclusive The distinction is maintained rigidly only in northern dialects, notably Beijing dialect. Most speakers use only 我們.
Marathi आपण /aˑpəɳ/ आम्ही /aˑmʱiˑ/  ??
Min Nan 咱 (lán) 阮 (goán/gún) Exclusive
Quechua ñuqanchik ñuqayku Both
Samoan ʻitatou ʻimatou Exclusive The dual forms are ʻitaʻua (incl.) and ʻimaʻua (excl.)
Shawnee kiilawe niilawe Exclusive The inclusive form is morphologically derived from the second person pronoun kiila.
Tagalog táyo kamí  ??
Tausug kitaniyu kami  ?? The dual inclusive is kita.
Tamil நாம் (nām) நாங்கள் (nāṅkaḷ) Inclusive
Telugu మనము (manamu) మేము (memu)  ??
Tetum ita ami  ??
Tok Pisin yumipela mipela Exclusive The inclusive form is derived from the second person pronoun and the first person pronoun. There are also dual and trial forms.
Tupinambá îandé oré Inclusive
Vietnamese chúng ta chúng tôi Inclusive The exclusive form is derived from the polite form of I, tôi

See also


  1. ^ a b c Simon, Horst J. Only you? Philological investigations into the alleged inclusive-exclusive distinction in the second person plural, in: Elena Filimonova (ed.): Clusivity: Typology and case studies of the inclusive-exclusive distinction. Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2005. [1]
  2. ^ Comrie, Bernard. 1980. "Review of Greenberg, Joseph H. (ed.), Universals of human language, Volume 3: Word Structure (1978)". Language 56: p837, as quoted in Simon 2005. Quote: One pair of combinations not discussed is the opposition between 2nd person non-singular inclusive (i.e. including some third person) and exclusive, which is attested in Southeast Ambrym.
  3. ^ Henderson, T.S.T. 1985. "Who are we, anyway? A study of personal pronoun systems". Linguistische Berichte 98: p308, as quoted in Simon 2005. Quote: My contention is that any language which provided more than one 2nd person plural pronoun, and required the speaker to make substantial enquiries about the whereabouts and number of those referred to in addition to the one person he was actually addressing, would be quite literally unspeakable.
  4. ^ One treated example is the Ghomala' language of Western Cameroon, which has been said to have a [1+2+3] first-person plural pronoun, but a more recent analysis by Wiesemann (2003) indicates that such pronouns may be limited to ceremonial use.
  5. ^ World Atlas of Language Structures 39: Inclusive/Exclusive Distinction in Independent Pronouns
  6. ^ World Atlas of Language Structures 40: Inclusive/Exclusive Distinction in Verbal Inflection

Further reading

  • Jim Chen, First Person Plural (analyzing the significance of inclusive and exclusive we in constitutional interpretation)
  • Payne, Thomas E. (1997), Describing morphosyntax: A guide for field linguists, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-58224-5 
  • Filimonova, Elena (eds). (2005). Clusivity: Typological and case studies of the inclusive-exclusive distinction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. ISBN 90-272-2974-0.

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