Chapter Inclusive/Exclusive Distinction in Verbal Inflection

by Michael Cysouw

General introduction

The distinction between an inclusive and an exclusive pronoun is a commonly attested feature of linguistic structure, yet from a Eurocentric point of view this distinction is particularly exotic. For speakers of English (or any other European language), both the inclusive and the exclusive pronouns are to be translated as we. The difference between the two depends on the intended meaning. An inclusive pronoun necessarily includes reference to the addressee. For example, the Mandarin inclusive pronoun zámen  means ‘we, I and you’; others can optionally be included. An exclusive pronoun, like the Mandarin pronoun wŏmen, excludes the addressee from the reference, resulting in a meaning like ‘I and some others, but not you’.

This distinction between inclusive and exclusive is not found in any European language, nor in the languages in its wider surrounding. Because of its absence, this possibility of linguistic structure was not part of any classical linguistic analysis. Its first description dates back to the 16th century. The discovery was made by the Dominican friar Domingo de Santo Tomás, as described in his grammar of Quechua, the language of the Incas, first published in 1560. Today, the most widely spoken languages that have this distinction are found among Austronesian languages (in particular Malay and Javanese), among Dravidian languages (in particular Tamil and Telugu) and among northern varieties of Chinese.

1. Introduction

The inclusive/exclusive opposition is a distinction which marks two different forms that are both to be translated into English as we. The inclusive ‘we’ is used if the addressee is included in the reference; it means something like ‘you and I (and possibly others)’. In contrast, the exclusive ‘we’ is used if the addressee is not  included in the reference. This form of ‘we’ means something like ‘I and others (not you)’.

Map 40A shows the distribution of the inclusive/exclusive distinction in verbal inflection. This map is related to the previous Map 39A, which showed the distribution of the inclusive/exclusive distinction in independent pronouns. However, there are languages that do not show the same inclusive/exclusive patterning in their independent pronouns and in their verbal inflection. About 50% of the languages investigated here show the same type in both situations. Another 40% simply have no verbal inflection for person at all, so the question as to any inclusive/exclusive distinction becomes irrelevant. A final 10% show different marking in pronouns and verbal inflection. This is exemplified by Ngiti (Nilo-Saharan; Democratic Republic of Congo), as shown in (1). The independent pronouns distinguish ma  (‘I’) from exclusive   and from inclusive alɛ̀  (tone is a distinctive feature here). However, the verbal prefixes do not distinguish between ‘I’ and exclusive ‘we’, which are both marked by a prefix m-.

(1) Ngiti (Kutsch Lojenga 1994: 220-221) 








'I cry.' 








'We (exclusive) cry.' 








'We (inclusive) cry.' 

2. Definition of values

The definitions of the values that are distinguished in this map are almost identical to the definitions of the values used in the previous Map 39A

Values of Map 40A. Inclusive/Exclusive Distinction in Verbal Inflection
No person marking at all 70
'We' and 'I' identical 12
No inclusive/exclusive opposition 79
Only inclusive differentiated 9
Inclusive and exclusive differentiated 30

For a detailed description of the values distinguished consult the subsections 1.1 - 1.5 in Chapter 39. There are two small – but significant – differences in the definition as used for this map. 

First, when the inflection is distributed over two different morphological "slots" then I have only included the marking as found in the one slot that marks at least an opposition between ‘I’ and ‘you’. In most cases, the other slot marks plural number, which I have ignored in this map. This is exemplified in (2) by Passamaquoddy-Maliseet (Algonquian; Maine and New Brunswick). In this language, there are person/number prefixes and suffixes. Together, these affixes distinguish ‘I’ from exclusive and from inclusive. However, the suffixes turn out only to appear in the plural, so they look like plural markers (which I ignore). In the prefixes, there is no distinction between the marking for ‘I’ and the marking for exclusive, which are both marked with the prefix n-. There is a different prefix k-, which marks for inclusive. This implies that this language is classified as "only inclusive differentiated".

(2) Passamaquoddy-Maliseet (Leavitt 1996: 9) 






‘I have it’ 






‘We (exclusive) have it.’ 






‘We (inclusive) have it.’ 

Second, on this map, white means that there is no person marking at all in the verbal inflection of the language. For example, a language like Mandarin does not have any person marking at all on its verbs, so it is marked white here. 

This definition of the value "no person marking" is closely related to value 1 from Chapter 102. However, the definitions are slightly different, which causes some languages to be coded differently on the two maps. In some languages, the marking of person is neither an obligatory part of the verb (as in Latin), nor is it completely absent (as in Mandarin). Such in-between cases represent stages in a transition from no person inflection towards full person inflection. For the present typology, a (rather arbitrary) division of this continuum had to be made. The basic criterion that has been used is whether the person marking, when it is marked, occurs bound onto the main verb or not. This implies that languages with so-called clitic pronouns are included if the pronouns cliticize on the main verb. This is exemplified in (3) by Yagua (Peba-Yaguan; Peru). The independent pronoun ráy  in (3a) is identical to the verbal proclitic in (3b). These proclitics are not obligatorily used. However, when they appear, they cliticise on the main verb. Such verbal clitics are taken as cases of verbal inflection in this map.

(3) Yagua (Payne and Payne 1990: 367, 370) 








‘I’m working.’ 








‘I carry/lead his daughter.’ 

However, there are also languages that have clitic pronouns which do not cliticize onto the verb, but occur in a fixed position in the syntactic structure. For example, in Ngiyambaa (Pama-Nyungan; New South Wales, Australia; Donaldson 1980) pronouns can optionally cliticise onto the first word of the sentence, whatever that word may be. Such clitics are not included in this map as verbal inflection, so this language is coded as "no person marking". 

A second type of person marking that is not included as inflectional marking is exemplified by Hindi in (4). In Hindi, the person features are marked on a verbal auxiliary, not on the main verb. Languages which consistently use such periphrastic constructions are coded as "no person marking" on this map. 

(4) Hindi (McGregor 1995: 20) 









‘I go.’ 










‘We go’. 

3. Geographical distribution

The inclusive/exclusive distinction in verbal inflection is uncommon in Africa and Eurasia; only sporadic cases are attested. In contrast, it is regularly attested in the Pacific. A group of Austronesian languages around New Guinea have an inclusive/exclusive distinction in their verbal inflection. However, the languages from mainland New Guinea itself do not have the distinction on verbs. The non-Pama-Nyungan languages in northern Australia constitute another clear region in which the languages have an inflectional inclusive/exclusive distinction. The Americas are particularly interesting because all five values are attested frequently, including those values that are rare world-wide. However, areally there does not appear to be any regularity within the Americas. All five values occur throughout the continent without any typologically uniform areas.