Over at aprendiz de todo, Prentiss Riddle discusses the complex set of pronouns given in Sir Richard Winstedt’s Colloquial Malay (Singapore, 1957):

…there are not only separate sets of pronouns for different combinations of social ranks, but a distinct set reserved just for addressing ethnic Chinese. Shades of John Wilkins! No wonder Winstedt goes on to say that “Malays shun the use of personal pronouns”—although the practice he describes of substituting nouns representing rank, title or metaphorical family relationship seems just as complex.
I’d write this off as a quaint and obsolete colonialism but linguablogger Jordan Macvay reports that the situation today isn’t much simpler. In fact he notes with surprise that many Malays have started borrowing the English I and you so as not to have to commit to one of the social relationships encoded in their own pronouns.

Jordan’s post is long and extremely interesting; an excerpt:

The problem is that Malay has too many available pronouns to choose from. When referring to oneself, a Malay speaker will generally have two pronouns to choose from: saya and aku. Both mean the same thing, but aku is seen as more informal and is used only with family and close friends (whereas in the Indonesian form of the language aku is the standard first person singular pronoun). When addressing another person, there is a dizzying array of choices. When speaking in the second person singular a Malay speaker must choose between awak (used for a spouse, close family members or friends, children and someone below you in age or, less frequently nowadays, in social status), anda (more formal, mostly used in advertising and on signs as in the French vous), engkau (used with close friends and family members; I often hear this shortened to kau or even ko), the seldom used kamu (which I think is actually supposed to be second person plural but is sometimes used in the singular, although I could be confusing Malay and Indonesian here; I usually only see it in TV subtitles) and a large number of other forms of address such as abang/kakak (basically big brother/sister, used to address someone slightly older than yourself, usually one’s actual brother/sister or perhaps even husband, but often used to address strangers slightly older than yourself, especially at shops or markets), adik (little brother/sister, used to address someone younger; encik/cik (Mr./Ms.), pak cik/mak cik (uncle/aunty, used to address someone much older than yourself), tuan/puan (Mr./Mrs., a form of address often used for police and other officers, male or female, and also generally for married women) and a few others. Then there are the endless titles such as Tengku, Tuanku, Tun, Tan Sri, Datuk, Datin, Datuk Seri, Datin Seri, Putera, Puteri, and many others, which are used to directly address someone who is considered royalty or who has been conferred a non-hereditary title by a Sultan.

I’m particularly interested in the distinctions between Malaysian and Indonesian, which I lazily tend to think of as pretty much the same.
Update. See now Lameen’s post at Jabal al-Lughat.


  1. I read a book about Japanese culture for foreigners (it may have been “Cultureshock: Japan” which said that Indonesians were the only foreigners who ever learned Japanese etiquette (presumably because the two systems were equallt complicated).
    In Taiwan I met an Englishwoman of Dutch origin who said that she had an advantage switching from Malay to Indonesian because the Dutch borrowings in Indonesian were obvious to her.

  2. Tim May says:

    You’ve mentioned Jordan’s post before, as you may remember.
    It’s perhaps questionable whether “personal pronouns” really constitute a grammatical category in these languages in the way that they do in English – from what I know of Japanese (which is not enough) they play a relatively minor role in speech, being just a small part of a wide variety of nouns used for address and self-reference (mostly titles and fictive family relationships, as Riddle mentions in Malay). Diachronically, they have developed from just these kinds of terms (and relatively recently when compared with the generally very ancient Indo-European pronouns). I only mention this because it may be less surprising to find so many if we consider them as members of the open class of nouns rather than a closed class of pronouns.
    Speaking of politeness systems in Indonesian languages, that of Javanese is particularly celebrated, with the ngoko, madya and krama registers almost forming seperate languages (at least in terms of vocabulary). There is a descriptive paper here.

  3. caffeind says:

    Tim May is spot on. I’d guess this pattern is more common than not in East and Southeast Asian languages. Chinese does have 1st/2nd/3rd person pronouns that are traceable back to ancient times though. Chinese also often used family and status expressions instead of pronouns, though this has receded recently.
    Western fixed pronouns could be viewed as inflectional affixes with mobile position. We already refer to “clitic pronouns” that are not mobile but attached to the verb.

  4. caffeind says:

    OK, at least 1st and 2nd person pronouns; I think it might not apply to 3rd. There’s only one form per person: plural pronouns are formed by adding a suffix, and the pronouns don’t inflect for case or anything else. Some reconstructions of ancient Chinese have different pronoun forms per case.

  5. You’ve mentioned Jordan’s post before, as you may remember.
    Uh, no, actually I’d forgotten. When you’ve made as many posts as I have, it’s amazing I don’t repost things more often. Sigh.

  6. OK, LH has been reminded, so we don’t need to remin him in the future…. just think of it as a lovable eccentricity. Until he starts telling the same joke over and over again, at least.
    In dealing with Mongol nomenclature, I’m not always sure whether I’m looking a name, a nickname, and epithet, a title, a rank, or a position. Especially because anything can be a nickname, and many men are mostly called by their nicknames. And there are no surnames, though clan and tribal names are used if needed to establish affiliation or claims to nobility. Seemingly the whole system is opportunistic, based on the individual’s situation. (The Chinese, who are meticulous about proper terminology, were astounded by this Mongol practice. It also bothered them that Mongols didn’t know their birthdays more accurately than within a few months — “sometime in the spring”.
    In French, “The Little Corporal” means Napoleon, who indeed had once been a corporal.

  7. Going through Dobson’s three grammars of the stages of “Classical Chinese”, as I remember you have to learn new pronouns at each stage, and none of them is the same as the modern set.

  8. Haha…oh, Mr. Hat…how quickly we forget. ;)
    Speaking of forgetting, in that article I don’t think I mentioned (haven’t actually checked, at least) one very important form of address: names. Malays will often refer to themselves and others by name even when addressing them directly. For example, my friend Meor might say to me, “Meor nak cakap dengan Jordan (Meor wants to talk with Jordan,” instead of “I want to talk with you.”
    And what Tim says about Javanese is right. My wife’s grandfather was Javanese and I’ve studied the language a bit. In terms of choosing the proper form of address it makes Malay look ridiculously easy, because in Javanese you have to choose not only different forms of address but completely different registers of the language.

  9. I have been told, though people have doubted this too, that at least traditionally Japanese women speak a different register of language than men. There was a story about a man who learned Japanese from his girlfriend, and had to relearn the language because people laughed when he talked like a girl.
    Pronouns — my memory also is that in the development of English ca. 900 – 1500 AD there was tremendous pronoun change, with great confusion during some periods.

  10. Quote:”I’m particularly interested in the distinctions between Malaysian and
    Indonesian, which I lazily tend to think of as pretty much the same.”:Unquote
    Easily seen as the difference between US English and England’s, though that’s just a generalization.

  11. Michael Farris says:

    Vietnamese is especially interesting in this regard as it has (by my count) three separate kinds of words (let’s call them shifters, non-shifters and misc) used for speaker/addressee reference which can interact in interesting ways.
    What often happens (with what I call non-shifters) is that what’s grammaticalized isn’t the idea of who’s speaking/being addressed but rather the relationship between the participants who are always referred to with the same words regardless of who’s speaking. Especially important are the categories as they’re referred to in Vietnamese người trên and người dưới (person on-top and person below respectively).

  12. Glad to see this picked up here, rerun or not.
    I don’t know whether this phenomenon is common to most East and Southeast Asian languages as caffeind suggests; the cursory browse I did on the subject (mostly in Wikipedia, for what that’s worth) called Japanese, Javanese and Indonesian the clear winnners in terms of obligatory encoding of social rank.
    Regarding gender, I wish I could track down something I remember reading years ago about a Native American language community where the registers for men’s and women’s speech were so different that initially researchers believed them to be entirely distinct languages. Ring any bells?
    And I’ve heard the same story about European men learning the local language from their “sleeping dictionaries” and consequently talking like women, to much ridicule. I heard it in the context of South Asia, where it was a simple matter of grammatical gender (easy to confuse because it lurks in the verbs as well as the adjectives), not a distinct register. It would be good to pin that story down to some specific instances.

  13. You’d think that pronouns would be one of the historically stable parts of language, since they’re so pervasively used. I think that the fact that class and politeness (distance and intimacy) have to be expressed in all languages (eg “tu” vs. “vous”)can make these words unstable, either if there is social change but also through a kind of inflation as honorific or polite forms come to be appropriated by people (or awarded to) who don’t really deserve them.
    When I studied Portuguese I was told that Brazilian Portuguese has its old politeness forms and its new ones, depending on where in Brazil you live.
    Likewise, “y’all”, “you guys”, “you’uns”, “youse” have been clumsily concocted to compensate for the lost of “thee” and “thou”, with “you” the new “thou”, sort of.

  14. I had always understood that Bahasa Indonesia was a simplified form of Malay – and that many of the pronoun distinctions have been leveled. Now Javanese on the other hand is supposed to have incredibly complex social etiquette rivaling Malay.

  15. Interesting indeed. I think the “pronouns for addressing Chinese people” are just Chinese borrowings.

  16. Also: the Native American community where men’s and women’s registers were so distinct is probably one of the Caribbean islands. Essentially, the men spoke Carib, while the women spoke Arawak, if I recall rightly.

  17. Tim May says:

    There certainly are distinct male and female registers in Japanese. Roy Andrew Miller gave the following female and male versions of a conversation in The Japanese Language:

    A: Maa, go-rippa na o-niwa de gozaamasu wa nee. Shibafu ga hirobiro to shite ite, kekkoo de gozaamasu wa nee.
    My, what a splendid garden you have there– the lawn is so nice and big, it’s certainly wonderful, isn’t it!
    B: Iie, nan desu ka, chitto mo teire ga yukitodokimasen mono de gozaimasu kara, moo, nakanaka itsumo kirei ni shite oku wake ni wa mairimasen no de gozaamasu yo.
    Oh no, not at all, we don’t take care of it at all any more, so it simply doesn’t always look as nice as we would like it to.
    A: Aa, sai de gozamashoo nee. Kore dake o-hiroin de gozaamasu kara, hitootori o-teire asobasu no ni datte taihen de gozamasho nee. Demo maa, sore de mo, itsumo yoku o-teire ga yukitodoite irasshaimasu wa. Itsumo honto ni o-kirei de kekkoo de gozaamasu wa.
    Oh, I don’t think so at all– but since it’s a big garden, of course it must be quite a tremendous task to take care of it all by yourself; but even so, you certainly do manage to make it look nice all the time; it certainly is nice and pretty any time one sees it.
    B: Iie, chitto mo sonna koto gozaamasen wa.
    No, I’m afraid not, not at all.
    A: Ii niwa da naa?
    It’s a nice garden, isn’t it?
    B: Un.

    Of course, while amusing, this rather extreme example doesn’t really show up the specific differences between male and female speech. There are certain choices of pronouns and grammatical particles which imply femininity or masculinity. Hopefully someone with a better knowledge of the language will come along and give examples.
    Whether people ever really learn inappropriately-gendered Japanese from “sleeping dictionaries”, I don’t know, but it’s often mentioned in instructional literature on the subject.

  18. That’s a great quote, Tim — thanks for posting it!

  19. Funny, the male version is similar to the American male version.
    One of the normal Mongol greetings is similar to this American greeting:
    “What’s new?”
    “Nothing much.”

  20. My understanding is that most dialects of Malay, whether spoken in Malaysia or Indonesia, are blessedly free of speech levels, to the point where Javanese will sometimes switch to Malay to avoid linguistic markers of hierarchy in complicated or ambiguous social situations. (Sort of like a Japanese college acquaintance of mine who would use the English pronoun ‘you’ when talking to me in Japanese, because none of the implications of omae, kimi, anata, otaku, onore, kisama, etc., were quite appropriate to kohai-senpai relationship.)
    Palace Malay, on the other hand, has a far richer treasury of words used to exalt one’s superior and debase oneself than any other Malay dialect. (It almost equals Javanese.) And in Brunei that vocabulary has expanded just as fast as the Sultan’s well-paid bureacracy has expanded during the Sultanate’s oil boom. It’s as if the U.S. government were to issue guidelines for how a GS-8 is to address a GS-12, and vice versa, and so on up the bureaucratic ranks. At least that’s what the master’s thesis I read by a student from Brunei contended.

  21. Further to Tim May’s point, I once waded through an interesting, but somewhat overwhelming article by an expat Indonesian polymath, Waruno Mahdi (quo google), that argues “one cannot actually speak of ‘pronouns’ as a word class in Indonesian.”
    Instead, the main division within the class of nominals appears to be between a subclass that encompasses impersonal nouns, placenames, and demonstrative and interrogative pronouns, on the one hand, and a subclass that includes personal proper names and pronouns, on the other.
    In a paper entitled “Personal nominal words in Indonesian: an anomaly in morphological classification” (2001), Mahdi shows certain similarities in the behavior of the “personal nominals”: 1. personal proper names; 2. “personal pro-names” (aku, kamu, dia, etc.), 3. “relational pro-names” (bapak, ibu, anak, nyonya, etc.).
    The similarities include alternations between long and short forms the same sets of environments, including vocatives, ergative prefixes: aku/ku, ibu/bu, nyonya/nya, Mohammad/Mat.
    Mahdi also cites a passage from James Fenimore Cooper that goes like this:
    Cora: What would [elder brother] say to [younger sibling], the daughter of Munro?
    Magua: [Elder brother] was born of …
    ‘Elder brother’ might be kakak, abang, or mas, but it would translate first as ‘you’ (Cora speaking), then as ‘I’ (Magua speaking).
    I can’t do justice to the whole argument, which is long and full of data.

  22. caffeind says:
    in English-Korean translation pronouns can be elliptically omitted, or they can be translated into definite noun phrases, into their antecedent, or into different Korean pronouns.
    in general, Koreans avoid using second person singular pronoun, especially when using honorific forms, and either i) use the person’s name or title in place of “you” in English, ii) use plural “ieoreobun” where applicable, or iii) avoid using a pronoun, relying on context to supply meaning instead)
    However, pronouns are rare in normal speech with the exception of certain pronouns such as kye (a 3rd person singular pronoun used to refer to an individual with the same or lower social rank) and kukes (it).
    It is also very common in Thai to use no pronoun at all or to use the person’s name instead of a pronoun.
    If he is talking to someone older than his father he might call them “loong” which means “uncle”.
    while nicknames are often used where English would use a pronoun

  23. flagondry says:

    Wow I’m really surprised to see the pronouns used between Malays and Chinese in the colonial period, because as far as I know in Bahasa Indonesia today ‘gua’ and ‘lu’ are extremely casual/informal forms of address, and when misused are considered really rude. I’m not sure if it could be considered the equivalent of the Japanese ‘omae’, but it’s usually the youngsters who would use it.
    What I find interesting is that the Japanese/Korean languages also have so many different levels of politeness, yet we don’t see them using the English pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ as a way out.
    That said, I do find that there are rather significant differences between Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia

  24. mahalona says:

    I’m not really a linguist, but as a native Indonesian speaker I can see that between Indonesian and Malaysian there are a lot of differences:
    We use ‘Kakak’ for both older brother and sister.
    (For a more appropriate calling, we would have to know the ethnicity of that person.
    e.g: older sister : mbak (Javanese), teteh (Sundanese), uni (Minang), etc.)
    Saya is more ‘proper Indonesian’, probably the most neutral.
    Aku usually used with a slight regional connotation- as in a Javanese person speaking Indonesian (with a heavy Surabayan accent) or in songs/poetry.
    Anda is used in a very formal setting such as interviews, public forums, debates, etc.
    Engkau is only used in songs or poetry, it is never ever use in a conversation.
    Kau is like aku, used with a slight regional connotation.
    Kamu is regularly used, but definitely used among people of the same age or older to younger person.
    Kalian is second person plural.
    Beliau is a very polite form of dia (he/she)
    We never used ‘awak’
    Substituting own name as ‘I/me’ is usually used among siblings, or children to parents
    We never use Puan for Mrs., we use Nyonya
    For someone of the same age as your parents, it is ‘Bapak’ (Father) and ‘Ibu’ (Mother).
    Urban Indonesian might call your parents’ friends, or your friends’ parents as ‘Oom’ (Uncle) and ‘Tante’ (Auntie) from Dutch.
    Lu and gua is used only among Jakartans- a way of saying ‘you’ and ‘me’ (from Hokkian), but only used in a familiar setting and among the same age. Outside Jakarta, it is hardly used- if used at all outside Jakarta, it is probably by a Jakarta-educated person or a Jakartan migrant. And if used by non-Jakartans, he/she will be seen as an oddball, trying too hard to be ‘with it’.
    Other cities in Indonesia would employ different set of Indonesian ‘familiar’ I/you. eg: in Makassar it is saya/kau. In Yogya it is aku/kamu.
    We don’t use encik/cik/pakcik/makcik at all.
    Probably the ethnic Malays of East Sumatra would use almost the same set of pronouns as the Malays in Malaysia.

  25. Fascinating — thanks for all those details; I’m particularly struck by the fact that different cities use different sets of familiar pronouns.

  26. Another interesting fact, along the lines of the last couple of comments (the different pronouns in different cities, not the spam): Malays from my wife’s area (Johor, but particularly the area around the Muar district) use ‘orang’ (person) as the 1st person singular pronoun (for example: ‘Besok orang kerja’–’Tomorrow I work’).

  27. Miranda says:

    Can anyone tell me what form of address was used in colonial Malaya for the wife of a “tuan”?

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