Austronesian languages Dravidian languages Indo-European languages

In linguistics, clusivity[1] is a grammatical 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 and possibly others"), while exclusive "we" specifically excludes the addressee (that is, another word for "we" means "he/she/they 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 (you vs. you and them) in natural languages is controversial and not well attested.[2] While clusivity is not a feature of standard English language, it is found in many languages around the world.

The first published description of the inclusive-exclusive distinction by a European linguist was in a description of languages of Peru in 1560 by Domingo de Santo Tomás in his Grammatica o arte de la lengua general de los indios de los Reynos del Perú, published in Valladolid, Spain.[3]

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:
I and you (and possibly they)
Exclusive we:
I and they, but not you
No you they


In some languages, the three first-person pronouns appear to be unrelated. This is the case for Chechen, which has singular so/со, exclusive txo/тхо, and inclusive vay/вай. In others, all three are related, as in Tok Pisin (an English creole spoken in Papua New Guinea) 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 some dialects of Mandarin Chinese, for example, inclusive or exclusive 我們/我们 wǒmen is the plural form of singular "I", while inclusive 咱們/咱们 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[dubious ] root.[citation needed]

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" (ta) pluralizes to inclusive we (chúng ta) and the polite word for "I" (tôi) pluralizes into exclusive we (chúng tôi). 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.

In the Kunama language of Eritrea, the first person inclusive and exclusive distinction is marked on dual and plural forms of verbs, independent pronouns, and possessive pronouns.[4]

Distinction in verbs

Where verbs are inflected for person, as in the native languages of Australia and many Native American languages, 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.

First-person clusivity

First-person clusivity is a common feature among Dravidian, Kartvelian, and Caucasian languages,[5] Australian and Austronesian, and is also found in languages of eastern, southern, and southwestern Asia, Americas, and in some creole languages. Some African languages also make this distinction, such as the Fula language. No European language outside the Caucasus makes this distinction grammatically, but some constructions may be semantically inclusive or exclusive.

Singular inclusive forms

Several Polynesian languages, such as Samoan and Tongan, have clusivity with overt dual and plural suffixes in their pronouns. The lack of a suffix indicates the singular. The exclusive form is used in the singular as the normal word for "I", but the inclusive also occurs in the singular. The distinction is one of discourse: the singular inclusive has been described as the "modesty I" in Tongan, often rendered in English as one, while in Samoan its use has been described as indicating emotional involvement on the part of the speaker.

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,[6] have attested that the distinction is extant in spoken natural languages, while others, such as John Henderson,[7] 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.[2]

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.[2] He concludes that oft-repeated rumors regarding the existence of second-person clusivity—or indeed, any [+3] pronoun feature beyond simple exclusive we[8] – are ill-founded, and based on erroneous analysis of the data.

Distribution of the clusivity distinction

The inclusive–exclusive distinction occurs nearly universally among the Austronesian languages and the languages of northern Australia, but rarely in the nearby Papuan languages. (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, featuring in the Dravidian and Munda languages, as well as in several Indo-European languages of India such as Oriya, Marathi, Rajasthani, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Gujarati (which either borrowed it from Dravidian or was retained as a substratum if Dravidian was displaced). It can also be found in the languages of eastern Siberia, such as Tungusic, from which it was borrowed into northern Mandarin Chinese. In indigenous languages of the Americas 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 Khoekhoe.[9][10]

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 (English "the rest of us", Italian noialtri). A language with a true clusivity distinction, however, does not provide a first person plural with indefinite clusivity: where the clusivity of the pronoun is ambiguous; rather, the speaker is forced to specify – by choice of pronoun or inflection – whether they are 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 make the clusivity distinction only in, for example, the dual, but not in the greater plural. Others 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 Language family
Ainu a-/an- ci- ?? Ainu
American Sign Language (ASL) "K" tips up palm in (dual)

"1" tap chest + twist (pl)

"K" tips up palm side (dual)

"1" tap each side of chest (pl)

Exclusive plural French Sign Language
Apma kidi gema Neither Subject prefixes are ta- (incl.) and kaa(ma)- (excl.). Dual forms, derived from the plurals, also exist. Austronesian
Aymara jiwasa naya Exclusive The derived form jiwasanaka of the inclusive refers to at least 3 people. Aymaran
Bislama yumi mifala Both The inclusive form is derived from the second person pronoun and the first person pronoun. There are also dual and trial forms. English creole
Cebuano kita kami Neither Short forms are ta (incl.) and mi (excl.) Austronesian
Chechen vai txo Neither Caucasian
Daur baa biede ?? Mongolic
Evenki mit ?? Tungusic
Fijian kedatou† keitou ("we" but excludes the person spoken to) "kedaru" also means "we" but limited to the speaker and the person spoken to, can be translated as "you and me".
† ("we" and includes person spoken to and the speaker as part of a finite group. If referring to a much larger group, like humanity or a race of people, "keda" would be used instead)
Fula 𞤫𞤲 (en), 𞤫𞤯𞤫𞤲 (eɗen) 𞤥𞤭𞤲 (min), 𞤥𞤭𞤯𞤫𞤲 (miɗen) Exclusive (?) Examples show short & long form subject pronouns. Niger-Congo
Guarani ñande ore Neither Tupi-Guarani
Gujarati આપણે /aˑpəɳ(eˑ)/ અમે /əmeˑ/ Exclusive Indo-European
Hadza onebee ôbee Inclusive Hadza (isolate)
Hawaiian kāua (dual); kākou (plural) māua (dual); mākou (plural) Neither Austronesian
Hiligaynon kitá kamí Neither Austronesian
Ilocano datayó, sitayó dakamí, sikamí Neither The dual inclusives datá and sitá are widely used. Austronesian
Kapampangan ikatamu ikami Neither The dual inclusive ikata is widely used. Austronesian
Australian 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. English creole
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. Siouan
Lojban mi'o mi'a/mi Both There also exists the form ma'a, which means the speaker, listener, and others unspecified. It is of note that the first-person pronoun mi doesn't take number and can refer to any number of individuals in the same group; mi'a and mi'o are usually preferred. Constructed language
Malagasy Isika Izahay Austronesian
Manchu muse be Exclusive Tungusic
Malay kita kami Neither The exclusive form is hardly used in informal Indonesian in (and spreading from) Jakarta. Instead, kita is almost always used colloquially to indicate both inclusive and exclusive "we". However, in more formal circumstances (both written and spoken), the distinction is clear and well-practiced. Therefore, kami is absolutely exclusive whereas kita may generally mean both inclusive and exclusive "we" depending on the circumstances. This phenomenon is less frequently encountered in Malaysian. Austronesian
Malayalam നമ്മൾ (nammaḷ) ഞങ്ങൾ (ñaṅṅaḷ) Exclusive Dravidian
Mandarin 咱們 / 咱们 (zánmen) 我們 / 我们 (wǒmen) Exclusive 我们 is used both inclusively and exclusively by most speakers, especially in formal situations. Use of 咱们 is common only in northern dialects, notably Beijing dialect, and may be a Manchu influence.[11] Sino-Tibetan
Marathi आपण /aˑpəɳ/ आम्ही /aˑmʱiˑ/ Exclusive Indo-European
Marwari /aˑpãˑ/ /mɦẽˑ/ Exclusive Indo-European
Southern Min 咱 (lán) 阮 (goán/gún) Exclusive Sino-Tibetan
Newar language Jhi: sa:n (झि:सं:) Jim sa:n (जिम् सं:) Both are used as possessive pronouns Sino-Tibetan
Pohnpeian kitail (plural), kita (dual) kiht (independent), se (subject) There is an independent (non-verbal) and subject (verbal) pronoun distinction. The exclusive includes both dual and plural while the independent has a dual/plural distinction Austronesian
Potawatomi ginan, g- -men (short), gde- -men (long) ninan, n- -men(short), nde- -men (long) ?? Potawatomi has two verb conjugation types, "short" and "long." Both are listed here, and labeled as such. Central Algonquian
Punjabi ਆਪਾਂ (apan) ਅਸੀਂ (asin) Indo-European
Quechuan languages ñuqanchik ñuqayku Both Quechuan
Samoan ʻitatou ʻimatou Exclusive The dual forms are ʻitaʻua (incl.) and ʻimaʻua (excl.) Austronesian
Shawnee kiilawe niilawe Exclusive The inclusive form is morphologically derived from the second person pronoun kiila. Algic
Tagalog táyo kamí Neither Austronesian
Taiwanese lán goán Exclusive (goá) The third-person singular i (he/she/it) also pluralizes to in (they/them) via nasalization. Sinitic > Southern Min
Tausug kitaniyu kami ?? The dual inclusive is kita. Austronesian
Tamil நாம் (nām) நாங்கள் (nāṅkaḷ) Exclusive Dravidian
Telugu మనము (manamu) మేము (memu) Neither Dravidian
Tetum ita ami Neither Austronesian
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. English creole
Tupi îandé oré Inclusive Tupi-Guarani
Tulu namma yenkuḷn Dravidian
Vietnamese chúng ta chúng tôi Inclusive The exclusive form is derived from the polite form of I, tôi Austroasiatic


  1. ^ Filimonova, Elena (30 November 2005). Clusivity: Typology and case studies of the inclusive-exclusive distinction. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 9789027293886 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ a b c Simon, Horst J. (2005). "Only you? Philological investigations into the alleged inclusive-exclusive distinction in the second person plural" (PDF). In Filimonova, Elena (ed.). Clusivity: Typology and case studies of the inclusive-exclusive distinction. Amsterdam/Philadelphia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-09. Retrieved 2010-08-02.
  3. ^ Mary Haas. 1969. "Exclusive" and "inclusive": A look at early usage. International Journal of American Linguistics 35:1-6. JSTOR 1263878.
  4. ^ Thompson, E. D. 1983. "Kunama: phonology and noun phrase" in M. Lionel Bender (ed.): Nilo-Saharan Language Studies, pp. 280–322. East Lansing: African Studies Center, Michigan State University.
  5. ^ Awde, Nicholas; Galaev, Muhammad (22 May 2014). Chechen-English English-Chechen Dictionary and Phrasebook. Routledge. ISBN 9781136802331 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ http://wals.info/chapter/39 World Atlas of Language Structures 39: Inclusive/Exclusive Distinction in Independent Pronouns
  10. ^ http://wals.info/chapter/40 World Atlas of Language Structures 40: Inclusive/Exclusive Distinction in Verbal Inflection
  11. ^ Matthews, 2010. "Language Contact and Chinese". In Hickey, ed., The Handbook of Language Contact, p 760.