Chapter Gender Distinctions in Independent Personal Pronouns

by Anna Siewierska

1. Introduction

Independent personal pronouns, in contrast to bound forms (i.e. clitics and affixes), are separate words capable of taking primary stress. Virtually all languages have independent personal pronouns, though in some they occur rather infrequently. Gender, as defined by Corbett (1991), is a form of classification of nominals, as shown by agreement (see Map 30A). Most gender contrasts on personal pronouns are sex-based, i.e. pronouns used for male referents are masculine and those used for females are feminine. The treatment of other referents varies. They may be referred to by a separate set (or sets) of neuter pronouns, as is the case in English and many other European languages. Alternatively, they may be grouped with the referents of masculine gender (e.g. Amharic), or less commonly with the referents of feminine gender (e.g. Warekena), or split over the masculine and feminine genders in an arbitrary way or according to some semantically based principle (e.g. Garifuna).

Gender oppositions in personal pronouns are characteristic of the third rather than the first or second person. This is suggested by Greenberg (1963: 96) Universal 44: “If a language has gender distinctions in the first person, it always has gender distinctions in the second or third person or in both”. Moreover, gender is seen as being typical of singular rather than non-singular personal pronouns. This, in turn, is expressed in Greenberg’s Universal 45: “If there are any gender distinctions in the plural of the pronoun, there are some gender distinctions in the singular also”. There are some exceptions to universals 44 and 45 involving independent person pronouns, but not many (cf. especially Plank and Schellinger 1997). 

2. Defining the values

The distribution of gender marking on independent personal pronouns is shown in Map 44A. In the case of languages which have more than one series of independent personal pronouns, the forms considered are those that may be used as subjects. The six values depicted in the map are based on the relationship between gender and person as reflected in the above-mentioned Greenbergian universals. The values are:

Values of Map 44A. Gender Distinctions in Independent Personal Pronouns
 ValueRepresentation
Gender distinctions in 3rd person plus 1st and/or 2nd person 18
Gender distinctions in 3rd person only, but in both singular and non-singular 42
Gender distinctions in 3rd person singular only 61
Gender distinctions in 1st or 2nd person but not 3rd 2
Gender distinctions in 3rd person non-singular only 1
No gender distinctions 254
Total:378

The first value represents languages in which gender is highly prominent in the pronominal system, i.e. in addition to gender in the third person, there is also gender in either second person or first person or both. The gender distinctions in question may involve just the singular, or any combination of both singular and non-singular. For instance, in Hausa (Chadic; Nigeria and Niger) and many other Chadic and Semitic languages, gender is exhibited only in the second and third person singular: 

(1) Hausa (Newman 2000: 477) 

1sg

1pl

2sg.m

kai

2pl

2sg.f

 

3sg.m

shī

3pl

3sg.f

ita

 

In Ngala (Ndu, Sepik; north-western Papua New Guinea), there are gender distinctions in all three persons in the singular:

(2) Ngala (Laycock 1965a: 133) 

1sg.m

wn

1du

ʌyn

1pl

nan

1sg.f

ñən

2du

ən

2pl

gwn

2sg.m

mən

3du

kəbər

3pl

rʌr

2sg.f

yn

 

3sg.m

kər

 

3sg.f

yn

 

Rif Berber (Morocco) has a gender contrast in the second and third person in both the singular and plural (see (3)), while the Murui dialect of Huitoto (Huitotoan; Colombia and Peru) has a two-way gender contrast in the first and second person dual and a three-way gender contrast in the third person singular, dual and plural (see (4)).

(3) Rif Berber (McClelland 2000: 27) 

1sg

nəš

1pl

nəšnin

2sg.m

šək

2pl.m

kəniw

2sg.f

šəm

2pl.f

kənint

3sg.m

nətta

3pl.m

nitnin

3sg.f

nəttæθ

3pl.f

nitənti

(4) Murui Huitoto (Wise 1999: 322) 

sg

 

du

 

pl

 

1

kuè

1.m

kɔkɔ

1

kaɯ̃

   

1.f

kaìɲaɯ̀

 

2

ɔ

2.m

ɔmɯkɔ

2

ɔmɔɯ̀

   

2.f

ɔmɯɲɔɯ̀

 

3.m

imɯe

3.m

iaɯ̀maìaɯ̀

3.m

imakɯ

3.f

iɲaìɲɔ

3.f

iaɯ̀ɲuaɯ̀

3.f

iɲaìɲuaɯ̀

3.n

ie

3.n

ie

3.n

ie

And Korana (Central Khoisan; South Africa) has gender distinctions for all three persons in three numbers and in both the exclusive and inclusive forms in the dual and plural (here C = common gender):

(5) Korana (Meinhof 1930: 43, via Tom Güldemann) 

   

sg 

du 

pl 

 

sa-m 

sa-da 

incl 

 

sa-sam 

sa-sē 

 

 

sa-kham 

sa-tjē 

 

s-m 

si-da 

excl 

ti-ta 

si-sam 

si-sē 

 

ti-re 

si-kham 

si-tjē 

 

sa-khaoo 

sa-du 

 

sa-s 

sa-saro 

sa-sao 

 

sa-ts 

sa-kharo 

sa-kao 

ll’ãi-‘i

ll’ãi-kha 

ll’ãinē 

 

ll’ãi-s

ll’ãi-sara 

ll’ãidē 

 

ll’ãi-b

ll’ãi-khara 

ll’ãiku 

The Korana paradigm is particularly worthy of attention as it is the most complete person/number/gender paradigm in the sample. 

Languages in which gender in personal pronouns is confined to the third person but not just to the singular are covered by value two. The relevant languages may display gender in all the singular and non-singular third person forms, as in Worora (Wororan; Western Australia), which has gender distinctions in the singular, dual, trial and plural.  

(6) Worora (Love 2000: 8-10) 

 

sg 

du 

tri

pl 

1incl 

 

ŋa’rendu

‘ŋariŋ’guri

‘ŋari

1excl 

‘ŋaiu

a’rendu

‘ariŋguri

‘ạri

‘ŋundju

nji’rendu

‘njiriŋguri

‘njiri 

3.

‘indja 

iŋ’gandu

‘iŋguri

‘arka 

3.

‘njina 

njiŋ’gandinja

‘njiŋgurinya

‘arka 

3.n1

‘wuna

wun’gạndu

‘wunguri

‘wuna

3.n2

‘mana

mạn’gạndum

‘mạngurim

‘mạna

Alternatively, they may have gender in the singular and only some of the non-singular numbers, for instance, the dual but not the plural, as in Lavukaleve (Solomons East Papuan; Solomon Islands):

(7) Lavukaleve (Terrill 2003: 170, 172) 

 

sg

du

pl

1excl

ngai

el

e

1incl

 

mel

me

2

inu

imil

imi

3.m

fona

fonala

fova

3.f

fo

fol

fova

3.n

foga

fogala

fova

(In Lavukaleve four degrees of distance are distinguished in the third person forms. Only the proximal forms are given in (7).) 

Value three encompasses languages which have a gender contrast solely in the third person singular, irrespective of the variety of number oppositions exhibited: singular/plural as in English, singular/dual/plural as in Mundari (Munda; India), Trumai (isolate; Brazil), and Yessan-Mayo (Sepik; Papua New Guinea) or even singular/dual/paucal/plural as in Ungarinjin (Wororan; Western Australia). 

Value four represents languages which display gender in either the first or second person but not the third. The only instance of gender just in the first person that I have come across with respect to independent personal pronouns is in Macá (Mataco-Guaicuru; Argentina and Bolivia), in which feminine gender is marked on the first person inclusive (Aikhenvald 2000: 252). Gender just in the second person is slightly more common. It is illustrated in (8) from Iraqw (Cushitic, Afro-Asiatic; Tanzania), which has both long and short forms of independent personal pronouns. 

(8) Iraqw (Mous 1993: 112) 

 

long

short

1sg

aníng

án

2sg.m

kúung

2sg.f

kíing

ki

3sg

inós

ís

1pl

atén

át

2pl

kuungá

-

3pl

ino ín

inín

Some other languages which have gender just in the second person are Burunge (Cushitic, Afro-Asiatic; Tanzania), Kofyar (Chadic, Afro-Asiatic; Nigeria) and Minangkabau (Malayic, Austronesian; Sumatra, Indonesia).

Value five has been assigned to languages which display gender only in the third person non-singular. These languages constitute a sub-type of exceptions to Greenberg’s Universal 45. A case in point is Dagaare (Gur; Ghana), which has a human/non-human distinction only in the third person plural. This is illustrated in (9). 

(9) Dagaare (Bodomo 1997: 71) 

1sg

maa

1pl

tenee

2sg

foo

2pl

yɛnee

3sg

onɔ

3pl.hon

bana

 

3pl.nhon

ana

Plank and Schellinger (1997: 62-65) mention several other languages belonging to this type, which are not in the sample, namely the Sauias dialect of Biak, Wandamen and Windesi (Austronesian; Papua, Indonesia); Katu (Katuic, Mon-Khmer; Vietnam and Laos); and Palauan (Western Malayo-Polynesian; Palau Island). 

Finally, value six represents languages that have no overt gender contrasts in the independent personal pronouns. Included in this category are languages in which third person pronouns are confined solely to humans or animates while other referents are referred to by demonstratives, classifiers or full NPs. Such languages are sometimes interpreted as displaying a covert gender opposition. 

3. Geographical distribution

Gender in independent pronouns is found in about 30 per cent of the languages in the sample. The greatest concentration of languages with gender in personal pronouns is in Africa. Gender is very prominent among the Afro-Asiatic languages of northern Africa, in the Niger-Congo languages of sub-Saharan Africa and also in the Khoisan languages of the southern part of the continent. It is not, however, a regular feature of Nilo-Saharan languages. The other major area with gender distinctions in independent pronouns is Eurasia and especially Europe. Gender is also very much in evidence among the non-Pama-Nyungan languages of northern Australia.

Turning to areas where gender is much less prominent, in New Guinea gender is found mainly among the non-Trans-New Guinea languages of northern New Guinea, particularly in the Sepik area and neighboring areas of West Papua. It also occurs among some of the West Papuan languages on the extreme northwest tip of New Guinea and in northern Halmahera. There is even less gender in the Americas, especially North America. The North American languages that do have gender are scattered throughout the continent. In South America gender is found primarily in the northern part of the continent and especially among the languages of the Amazon basin. The area in which gender is encountered most rarely is Southeast Asia and Oceania. Gender occurs in some Austro-Asiatic languages but hardly at all in Austronesian languages. All but one (Drehu) of the languages exhibiting gender from this area are non-Austronesian. 

Among the languages that do have gender distinctions in independent pronouns, gender just in third singular is dominant in all areas but for Africa. In Africa the dominant pattern seems to be gender in third person irrespective of number. In the case of the Afro-Asiatic and Khoisan languages, the favoured distribution of gender is in both the second and third person. Outside of Africa gender in other than the third person, particularly in the singular, is rare. Instances of gender in the first and second person non-singular are found in Europe (Spanish, Lithuanian, Slovene), New Guinea (Baniata, Dumu) and Australia (Anindilyakwa, Ndjébbana, Nunggubuyu). Only in Africa do we find languages displaying gender exclusively in some person other than the third.