Chinese pronouns

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Chinese pronouns (Chinese: 代词/代詞; pinyin: dàicí or Chinese: 代名詞; pinyin: dàimíngcí) 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 de. Some honorifics exist in the language, but modern Chinese, especially in the spoken language, does not express the differing levels of respect that can be seen in Honorific speech in Japanese or Korean honorifics.

Personal pronouns[edit]

Personal pronouns[1]
Person Singular Plural*

I, me
Exclusive Inclusive
we, us
we, us
Informal Formal 你們


他 / 她 / 它

he/him (Mainland China)
he/she/him/her (Taiwan and Hong Kong)
she/her, it
他們 / 她們 / 它們
they, them
* The character to indicate plurality is (men) in Traditional Chinese characters.
** 我們 can be either inclusive or exclusive, depending on the circumstance where it is used.
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.[2]
In written Chinese, a distinction between masculine human (he, him), feminine human (she, her), and non-human (it) [and similarly in the plural] was introduced in the early 20th century under European influence.[3] This distinction does not exist in the spoken language, where moreover is restricted to animate reference; inanimate entities are usually referred to with demonstrative pronouns for 'this' and 'that'.[4]

A second-person pronoun is sometimes used for addressing deities.

The first-person pronouns ǎn and 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" ( and ), rarely used today even in writings in traditional characters; in the simplified system, is rare.

The traditional characters also included three neuter third-person pronouns after Western contact, () for animals, for deities, and for inanimate objects. However, the distinction of these three characters vary from person to person, yet for some the confusion of three characters might be considered to be offensive. Whereas in simplified characters, is used in place of all three characters 祂 牠 它.

There are many other pronouns in modern Sinitic languages, such as Taiwanese Minnan (pinyin: nín; 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 (rǔ) or (ěr) for "you", and (wú) for "I" (see Chinese honorifics). They are not routinely encountered in colloquial speech.

Historical development of personal pronouns[edit]

Historical Modern
Shang and early Zhou period[5][6] Classical Chinese[7][6] Southern and Northern Dynasties period and Tang Dynasty[8] Mandarin Wu (Shanghainese) Southern Min (Hokkien) Hakka[9] Yue (Cantonese)
Singular 1. *la, *laʔ, *lrəmʔ *ŋˤajʔ, *ŋˤa, *la, *laʔ ngaX, ngu ŋu˩˧ goá 𠊎 ŋai̯˩˩ ŋɔː˩˧
2. 汝/女 *naʔ, *nˤəʔ *neʔ, 汝/女 *naʔ, *nə, *nak nejX, 汝/女 nyoX, nejX noŋ˩˧ , ŋ˩˩ nei˩˧
3. *kot (possessive), *tə (objective), *gə (possessive),

third person subject pronoun did not exist

*tə (objective), *gə (possessive), third person subject pronoun did not exist gi, gjo; ’jij, tsyi, tha , , ɦi˩˧ i ki˩˩ kʰɵy˩˧
Plural 1. *ŋˤajʔ same as singular Singular +
tongX, dzaw, pwojH
我們 wǒmen 阿拉 ɐʔ˧˧ lɐʔ˦˦ goán ŋai̯˩˩ tɛʊ˧˧ ŋin˩˩ 我哋 ŋɔː˩˧ tei˨˨
2. *neʔ 你們 nǐmen na˩˧ lín ŋ˩˩ tɛʊ˧˧ ŋin˩˩ 你哋 nei˩˧ tei˨˨
3. (not used) 他們, 她們, 它們 tāmen 伊拉 ɦi˩˩ lɐʔ˧˧ 𪜶 in ki˩˩ tɛʊ˧˧ ŋin˩˩ 佢哋 kʰɵy˩˧ tei˨˨


To indicate alienable possession, (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, (lìng) is the equivalent to the modern form 您的 (nínde), as in 令尊 (lìngzūn) "your father". In literary style, () is sometimes used for "his" or "her"; e.g. 其父 means "his father" or "her father".

In Cantonese, for possessive, (ge3) is appended to the pronoun. It is used in the same way as in Mandarin.

In Taiwanese Minnan the character for "your" is (pinyin: rèn; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: lín); although this would be pronounced the same as the personal pronoun lín, it is represented by a different character when used as the equivalent of 你的 in Standard Chinese.

Demonstrative pronouns[edit]

The demonstrative pronouns work the same as in English.

  Singular Plural
Proximal 这个 / 這個
这些 / 這些
Distal 那个 / 那個

The distinction between singular and plural are made by the classifier 个/個 (gè) and (xiē), and the following nouns remain the same. Usually inanimate objects are referred using these pronouns rather than the personal pronouns (tā) and 它們 (tāmen). Traditional forms of these pronouns are: 這個 (zhège), 這些 (zhèxiē), 那個 (nàge), 那些 (nàxiē), and 它們 tāmen.

Interrogative pronouns[edit]

Pronoun Alternative HE-system English

(what person)
(what one)
which one
/ 何物
/ héwù
哪裡 or 哪兒
nǎlǐ or nǎr
何處 / 何地
héchù / hédì
(what location)
shénme shíhou
(what time)
wèi shénme
(for what)
(what to follow)
多少 or
duōshǎo or
(what the amount)
how much

Indefinite pronouns[edit]

Pronoun English
大家 dàjiā
誰都 shéidōu
誰也 shéiyě
誰都不 shéidōubù nobody

Pronouns in imperial times[edit]

See also Chinese honorifics.

In imperial times, the pronoun for "I" was commonly omitted when speaking politely or to someone with higher social status.[citation needed] "I" was usually replaced with special pronouns to address specific situations.[citation needed] Examples include 寡人 guǎrén during early Chinese history and zhèn after the Qin dynasty when the Emperor is speaking to his subjects. When the subjects speak to the Emperor, they address themselves as (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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Adapted from Yip, p. 47.
  2. ^ Matthews, 2010. "Language Contact and Chinese". In Hickey, ed., The Handbook of Language Contact, p 760. doi:10.1002/9781444318159.ch37.
  3. ^ Attempts to introduce audibly different forms for she () and it (tuō) in the first half of the 20th century were unsuccessful (Kane, p. 107).
  4. ^ Sun, pp. 166-167.
  5. ^ Laurent Sagart: The Roots of Old Chinese. (Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science, Series 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.
  6. ^ a b Ancient Chinese reconstructions according to Baxter and Sagart Archived September 27, 2013, at the Wayback Machine..
  7. ^ Note: The specified forms represent only a small selection.
  8. ^ Note: Middle Chinese pronunciations given in Baxter's notation.
  9. ^ Mataro J. Hashimoto: The Hakka Dialect. A linguistic study of Its Phonology, Syntax and Lexicon. University Press, Cambridge 1973. ISBN 0-521-20037-7