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 的 de. Pronouns in Chinese are often substituted by honorific alternatives.
Personal pronouns Person Singular Plural* First
Exclusive Inclusive 我們**
Informal Formal 你們
他 / 她 / 它
he/him (Mainland China)[clarification needed]
he/she/him/her (Taiwan and Hong Kong)
他們 / 她們 / 它們
- * The character to indicate plurality is 們 (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, and can only be used as a subject (not an object); 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'.
Following the iconoclastic May Fourth Movement in 1919, and to accommodate the translation of Western literature, written vernacular Chinese developed separate pronouns for gender-differentiated speech, and to address animals, deities, and inanimate objects. In the second person, they are nǐ (祢 "you, a deity"), nǐ (你 "you, a male"), and nǐ (妳 "you, a female"). In the third person, they are tā (牠 "it, an animal"), tā (祂 "it, a deity"), and tā (它 "it, an inanimate object"). Among users of traditional Chinese characters, these distinctions are only made in Taiwanese Mandarin; in simplified Chinese, tā (它) is the only third-person non-human form and nǐ (你) is the only second person form. The third person distinction between "he" (他) and "she" (她) remain in use in all forms of written standard Mandarin.
According to Wang Li, the second person formal pronoun nín (您 "you, formal; polite") is derived from the fusion of the second person plural nǐmen (你们 "you, formal; polite"), making it somewhat analogous to the distinction between T/V pronouns in Romance languages or thou/you in Early Modern English. Consistent with this hypothesized origin, *nínmen is traditionally considered to be a grammatically incorrect expression for the formal second person plural. Instead, the alternative phrases dàjiā (大家, "you, formal plural") and gèwèi (各位, "you, formal plural") are used, with the latter being somewhat more formal than the former. In addition, some dialects use an analogous formal third person pronoun tān (怹, "he/she, formal; polite").
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.
There are many other pronouns in modern Sinitic languages, such as Taiwanese Minnan 恁 (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 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||Standard Chinese (Mandarin Chinese)||Shanghainese (Wu Chinese)||Taiwanese Hokkien (Min Chinese)||Sixian Hakka (Hakka Chinese)||Cantonese (Yue Chinese)|
|Singular||1.||余 *la, 予 *laʔ, 朕 *lrəmʔ||我 *ŋˤajʔ, 吾 *ŋˤa (subjective and possessive only), 余 *la, 予 *laʔ||我 ngaX, 吾 ngu||我 wǒ||吾 ŋu˩˧||我 gua, ua||𠊎 ŋai11||我 ŋɔː˩˧|
|2.||汝/女 *naʔ, 乃 *nˤəʔ||爾 *neʔ, 汝/女 *naʔ, 而 *nə, 若 *nak||爾 nejX, 汝/女 nyoX, 你 nejX||你 nǐ||儂 noŋ˩˧||你 li, 汝 lɯ||你 n11, ŋ11, ɲi11||你 nei˩˧|
|3.||厥 *kot (possessive), 之 *tə (objective), 其 *gə (possessive),
third person subject pronoun did not exist
|之 *tə (objective), 其 *gə (possessive), third person subject pronoun did not exist||其 gi, 渠 gjo; 伊 ’jij, 之 tsyi, 他 tha||他, 她, 它 tā||伊 ɦi˩˧||伊 i||佢 ɡi11, i11||佢 kʰɵy˩˧|
|Plural||1.||我 *ŋˤajʔ||same as singular||Singular +
等 tongX, 曹 dzaw, 輩 pwojH
|Both INCL. and EXCL. 我們 wǒmen
INCL. 咱們 zánmen
|阿拉 ɐʔ˧ lɐʔ˦||EXCL. 阮 gun, un INCL. 咱 lan||EXCL. 𠊎兜/𠊎等 ŋai11 deu24/ŋai11 nen24
INCL. 這兜/大家 en24 ia31 deu24/en24 tai55 ga24
|我哋 ŋɔː˩˧ tei˨|
|2.||爾 *neʔ||你們 nǐmen||㑚 na˩˧||恁 lin||你兜/你等 ŋ11 deu24/ŋ11 nen24||你哋 nei˩˧ tei˨|
|3.||(not used)||他們, 她們, 它們 tāmen||伊拉 ɦi˩ lɐʔ˧||𪜶 in||佢兜/佢等 ɡi11 deu24/i11 nen24||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 (lìng) is the equivalent to the modern form 您的 (nínde), as in 令尊 (lìngzūn) "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 Cantonese, for possessive, 嘅 (ge3) is appended to the pronoun. It is used in the same way as 的 in Mandarin.
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.
|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 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 它們 (tāmen). Traditional forms of these pronouns are: 這個 (zhège), 這些 (zhèxiē), 那個 (nàge), 那些 (nàxiē), and 它們 tāmen.
|何 / 何物
hé / héwù
|哪裏 or 哪兒
nǎlǐ or nǎr
|何處 / 何地
héchù / hédì
(what to follow)
|多少 or 幾
duōshǎo or jǐ
(what the amount)
Pronouns in imperial times
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- 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 guǎrén (寡人) during early Chinese history and zhèn (朕) after the Qin dynasty when the Emperor is speaking to his subjects. When the subjects speak to the Emperor, they address themselves as chén (臣), 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 guì (贵/貴; lit. noble) is used for "you" and "your"; e.g., gùi gōngsī (贵公司/貴公司) refers to "your company". Běnrén (本人; lit. this person) is used to refer to oneself.
- Adapted from Yip, p. 47.
- Ross, Claudia; Sheng Ma, Jing-heng (2006). Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide. Psychology Press. p. 25.
- Matthews, 2010. "Language Contact and Chinese". In Hickey, ed., The Handbook of Language Contact, p 760. doi:10.1002/9781444318159.ch37.
- 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.
- Shei, Chris (2019). The Routledge Handbook of Chinese Discourse Analysis. Routledge. p. 200.
- 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.
- Ancient Chinese reconstructions according to Baxter and Sagart Archived September 27, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
- Note: The specified forms represent only a small selection.
- Note: Middle Chinese pronunciations given in Baxter's notation.
- Shi, Q.-S. (2016). Personal Pronouns in Southern Min Dialect. In P.-H. Ting et al. (Eds.). New Horizons in the Study of Chinese: Dialectology, Grammar, and Philology (pp. 181-190). Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press.
- Mataro J. Hashimoto: The Hakka Dialect. A linguistic study of Its Phonology, Syntax and Lexicon. University Press, Cambridge 1973. ISBN 0-521-20037-7
- Hakka Affairs Council. (2017). Vocabulary Words for the Hakka Proficiency Test: Elementary (Sixian Dialect) [客語能力認證基本辭彙-初級(四縣腔)]. Retrieved from https://elearning.hakka.gov.tw/ver2015
- 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.