Chinese pronouns (Chinese: 代词; pinyin: dàicí) differ somewhat from pronouns in English and other Indo-European languages. For instance, there is no differentiation in the spoken language between "he", "she" and "it" (though a written difference was introduced after contact with the West), and pronouns are not inflected to indicate whether they are the subject or object of a sentence. Mandarin Chinese further lacks a distinction between the possessive adjective ("my") and possessive pronoun ("mine"); both are formed by appending the particle 的 de. Some honorifics exist in the language, but modern Chinese, especially in the spoken language, lacks the levels of respect of Japanese.
Personal pronouns Person Singular Plural* First
Exclusive Inclusive† 我们
Informal Formal 你们
(s)he, him, her‡
- * The character to indicate plurality is 們 (men) in Traditional Chinese characters.
- †Used to indicate 'you and I' (two people) only; in all other cases wǒmen is used. This form has fallen into disuse outside Beijing, and may be a Manchu influence.
- ‡In written Chinese, a distinction between masculine human 他 (he, him), feminine human 她 (she, her), and non-human 它 (it) [and similarly in the plural] was introduced in the early 20th century under European influence. This distinction does not exist in the spoken language, where moreover tā is restricted to animate reference; inanimate entities are usually referred to with demonstrative pronouns for 'this' and 'that'.
A second-person pronoun 祢 mí is sometimes used for addressing deities.
The first-person pronouns 俺 ǎn and 偶 ǒu "I" are infrequently used in Mandarin conversation. They are of dialectal origin. However, their usage is gaining popularity among the young, most notably in online communications.
Traditional Chinese characters, as influenced by translations from Western languages and the Bible in the nineteenth century, occasionally distinguished gender in pronouns, although that distinction is abandoned in simplified Characters. Those traditional characters developed after Western contact include both masculine and feminine forms of "you" (你 and 妳), rarely used today even in writings in traditional characters; in the simplified system, 妳 is rare. The traditional characters also included three neuter third-person pronouns after Western contact, 牠 (tā) for animals, 祂 for deities, and 它 for inanimate objects, but, again, this distinction is rare in current actual usage; in simplified characters, 它 is used in place of 牠.
There are many other pronouns in modern Sinitic languages, such as Taiwanese Minnan 汝 (pinyin: rǔ; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: lín) "you" and Written Cantonese 佢哋 (keúih deih) "they." There exist many more pronouns in Classical Chinese and in literary works, including 汝 (rǔ) or 爾 (ěr) for "you", and 吾 (wú) for "I" (see Chinese honorifics). They are not routinely encountered in colloquial speech.
Historical development of personal pronouns
|Shang and early Zhou period||Classical Chinese||Southern and Northern Dynasties period and Tang Dynasty||Mandarin||Wu (Shanghainese)||Hakka||Yue (Cantonese)|
|Singular||1.||余 *la, 予 *laʔ, 朕 *lrəmʔ||我 *ŋˤajʔ, 吾 *ŋˤa, 余 *la, 予 *laʔ||我 wǒ, 吾 wú||我 wǒ||吾 ŋu˩˧||ŋai̯˩˩||我 ŋɔː˩˧|
|2.||汝/女 *naʔ, 乃 *nˤəʔ||爾 *neʔ, 汝/女 *naʔ, 而 *nə, 若 *nak||爾 ěr, 汝/女 rǔ, 你 nǐ||你 nǐ||侬 noŋ˩˧||ŋ˩˩||你 nei˩˧|
|3.||厥 *kot, 之 *tə, 其 *gə||之 *tə, 其 *gə||其 qí, 渠 qú; 伊 yī, 之 zhī, 他 tā||他, 她, 它 tā||伊 ɦi˩˧||ki˩˩||佢 kʰɵy˩˧|
|Plural||1.||我 *ŋˤajʔ||same as singular||Singular +
等 děng, 曹 cáo, 輩 bèi
|我们 wǒmen||阿拉 ɐʔ˧˧ lɐʔ˦˦||ŋai̯˩˩ tɛʊ˧˧ ŋin˩˩||我哋 ŋɔː˩˧ tei˨˨|
|2.||爾 *neʔ||你们 nǐmen||亻那 na˩˧||ŋ˩˩ tɛʊ˧˧ ŋin˩˩||你哋 nei˩˧ tei˨˨|
|3.||(not used)||他们, 她们, 它们 tāmen||伊拉 ɦi˩˩ lɐʔ˧˧||ki˩˩ tɛʊ˧˧ ŋin˩˩||佢哋 kʰɵy˩˧ tei˨˨|
To indicate alienable possession, 的 (de) is appended to the pronoun. For inalienable possession, such as family and entities very close to the owner, this may be omitted, e.g. 我妈/我媽 (wǒ mā) "my mother". For older generations, 令 (ling) is the equivalent to the modern form 您的 (ninde), as in 令尊 (lingzun) "your father". In literary style, 其 (qí) is sometimes used for "his" or "her"; e.g. 其父 means "his father" or "her father".
In Taiwanese Minnan the character for "your" is 恁 (pinyin: rèn; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: lín); although this would be pronounced the same as the personal pronoun 汝 lín, it is represented by a different character when used as the equivalent of 你的 in Standard Chinese.
The demonstrative pronouns work the same as in English.
The distinction between singular and plural are made by the classifier 个(gè) and 些 (xiē), and the following nouns remain the same. Usually inanimate objects are referred using these pronouns rather than the personal pronouns 它 (tā) and 它们 (tāmen). Traditional forms of these pronouns are: 這個 (zhège), 這些 (zhèxiē), 那個 (nàge), 那些 (nàxiē), and 它們 tāmen.
Pronouns in imperial times
- See also Chinese honorifics.
In imperial times, the pronoun for "I" was commonly omitted when speaking politely or to someone with higher social status. "I" was usually replaced with special pronouns to address specific situations. Examples include 寡人 guǎrén during early Chinese history and 朕 zhèn after the Qin dynasty when the Emperor is speaking to his subjects. When the subjects speak to the Emperor, they address themselves as 臣 (chén), or "your official". It was extremely impolite and taboo to address the Emperor as "you" or to address oneself as "I".
In modern times, the practice of self-deprecatory terms is still used in specific formal situations. In résumés, the term 贵/貴 (guì; lit. noble) is used for "you" and "your"; e.g., 贵公司/貴公司 refers to "your company". 本人 (běn rén; lit. this person) is used to refer to oneself.
- Adapted from Yip, p. 47.
- Matthews, 2010. "Language Contact and Chinese". In Hickey, ed., The Handbook of Language Contact, p 760.
- Attempts to introduce audibly different forms for she (yī) and it (tuō) in the first half of the 20th century were unsuccessful (Kane, p. 107).
- Sun, pp. 166-167.
- Laurent Sagart: The Roots of Old Chinese. (Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Servies IV, Volume 184) John Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia 1999. ISBN 90-272-3690-9, S. 142–147; W. A. C. H. Dobson: Early Archaic Chinese. A Descriptive Grammar. University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1962, S. 112–114.
- Ancient Chinese reconstructions according to Baxter and Sagart.
- Note: The specified forms represent only a small selection.
- Mataro J. Hashimoto: The Hakka Dialect. A linguistic study of Its Phonology, Syntax and Lexicon. University Press, Cambridge 1973. ISBN 0-521-20037-7
- Kane, Daniel (2006). The Chinese Language: Its History and Usage. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle. ISBN 0-8048-3853-4. OCLC 77522617.
- Sun, Chaofen (2006). Chinese: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 166–169. ISBN 0-521-82380-3. OCLC 70671780.
- Yip, Po-Ching; Rimmington, Don (2004). Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London; New York: Routledge. pp. 47–58. ISBN 978-0-415-15031-6. OCLC 52178249.