Mark of Alliterative has an entry about an interesting question asked by a student in his Old English class: does the use of the dual pronoun imply greater intimacy?

I wasn’t really sure how to answer this. Is the dual pronoun ever used to refer to two antagonists in Old English? I suppose one could say that the dual pronoun is sometimes used when the dual number of the referent is specifically regarded, not only because of intimacy. Sometimes the dual is conspicuous by its absence; for instance Adam and Eve are not refered to using dual pronouns in Ælfric’s translation of Genesis.
But what of other languages? I know that Old Norse also preserves the dual pronouns. What other languages do? Is there any special implication in the use of the dual in those languages (other than simply number)?

I’ve studied some languages with duals, but never paid enough attention to the circumstances under which they were used to be able to answer the question; anybody have any thoughts on the subject?


  1. I read a poem once by a Slovenian who said that his language was the on;y Indo-European language which still has the dual, but that it doesn’t do them any good and they’re tired of hearing about.
    I love ex-Yugoslavs when they’re not killing one another.

  2. it l; delete “;”

  3. Regarding ancient Greek: I’m not sure I would say that the dual reflects a greater “intimacy” – though certainly its use implies a relatively closer relationship between the two objects/people thus described. So in the Iliad Agamemnon’s (two) eyes get the dual – as indeed do most eyes in most authors, so far as I remember; the ever-cheerful pair of brothers Ag. and Menelaus are harangued in the dual, too. Are these things more “intimate” than most other pairs of objects in the book? I dunno; I don’t think Akhilleus and Patroklos get a dual.
    I would cite other examples, but usually I (like most people) have been content to say: “look, a dual – good thing I memorized that in the introductory course” – and move on.

  4. I don’t know how much of that is relevant, but Bavarian has also retained the dual forms. In fact those forms are the marker words for bavarian. The dual function though has gone and the words are now used as the plural form in addressing people. (or as is usual in german in the formal address.)
    And it’s not more intimate, no.

  5. Sorry if I’ve missed a boat, but isn’t both a dual-ish* pronoun/adjective in English?
    “Both were drunk, embracing and singing happily.”
    “Both men enjoyed the flash of white teeth in a bronzed face.”
    * You couldn’t say “Both men were drunk and both embraced” if you meant they embraced each other, could you? But you could say “Both men were drunk and they embraced”.

  6. While it is true that dual is not a part of today’s Greek, you can still hear or read it quite often in the common expression “δυοίν κακοίν προκειμένοιν το μη χείρον βέλτιστον” (“of two bads, the less worse is the best”; sorry for the lousy translation and the monotonic).

  7. The words for the old dual form still exist in Icelandic (New Old Norse? :p) although it’s no longer used as such. Once it was við/vér þið/þér (1st and 2nd person dual/plural respectively). Now við and þið have taken over as the plurals, and vér and þér are simply (extremely) formal equivalents. You’d hardly ever hear it anymore, might see it in writing, and usually only as an exaggerated formality for humourous effect. And rarely used correctly (can be used for two or more, just like við and þið).
    Apparently Sami has not only dual pronouns, but also dual verb forms. Don’t have any examples of this though. Anyone?

  8. “look, a dual – good thing I memorized that in the introductory course”
    You have expressed my case exactly.
    And of course duals that are no longer duals, though fascinating in their own right, shed no light here. (And PF, I’m afraid “dual-ish” doesn’t cut it — gotta be a separate morphological category.)

  9. aldiboronti says

    Apparently Maori has them too, lh.
    ” The singular pronouns are au “I” (also ahau), koe “you”, and ia “he, she”. The dual pronouns are täua “you and I”, mäua “he/she and I”, körua “you two”, räua “they too”. The plural pronouns are tätou “several of us, including you”, mätou “several of us, but not you”, koutou “you: all of you”, rätou “they: all of them” ”

  10. Aha! Now all we need to do is ask a Maori whether they’re automatically used in all two-item situations or imply some form of closeness.

  11. Anthony Hope says

    Slightly off-topic (and slightly rude too), here’s a modern usage of an ancient dual, taken from Lee Siegel’s Love In A Dead Language, which is full of in-jokes about Sanskritology (the most ‘innish’ being that the main character is killed when someone brains him with a copy of the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary — if you’ve ever seen (or had to lift) a Monier-Williams, you’ll know it really is a killer of a book):

    “Say, professor, what’s the Sanskrit for labia majora…?”

    Yonyosthau,” I answered in the nominative dual.

  12. I’ve lived among speakers of several Austronesian languages with dual pronouns: Yapese (in Micronesia), Numbami (in Papua New Guinea), and Tok Pisin (Melanesian Pidgin). I believe they can all refer to antagonists with their dual pronouns, in the equivalent of ‘the-two-of-them fight each other’.
    Among the more striking nonliteral uses I recall are the following.
    At the largest public gathering I ever attended in Yap, on UN Day in October, the PA-system announcer expressed sympathy to the crowd several times in the second-person dual, lit. ‘you-two have become tired’ (from Japanese otsukaresama/gokurousama, which equal ‘thank you’ in some contexts, but which English speakers tend to extend to any and all contexts when they might say ‘thanks’ in English.) I’m still not sure whether the announcer meant to stress his intimacy or familiarity with the crowd, or to used the dual as the “collective” plural, or to remark indirectly on how big the crowd was, as if a stadium PA announcer would say to a crowd of 30,000, “I’m glad to see a few of you managed to turn up for the game today.”
    In Numbami, the “trial” pronouns have the collective function and rarely refer exactly to ‘3’, while the dual is often used in the sense of ‘both together’: alua ti-wesa bebesua-ma ‘they.two they-went both-ly’ = ‘they both went’, but you can also say: alua ti-lapa ata ‘they.two they-fought reciprocal/reflexive’ = ‘the two of the them fought (each other)’. English ‘both fought’ doesn’t seem to imply the reciprocal as much as ‘they fought’ does.
    In Melanesia, dual and higher pronouns with appositional nouns are often used where European languages would use conjoined forms, as in Tok Pisin: mitupela Sam i stap ‘we-two Sam [=Sam+I] stay [here]’. In other words, the pronoun signals the total number, and a nouns list out the less obvious members of the set.

  13. See my comment on the original post. The issue doesn’t arise, because of the inclusive/exclusive distinction between taaua and maaua, tatou and matou. (The convention is to write two vowels if you can’t produce a macron; no umlauts please!).

  14. I seem to recall some uses for the dual in OCS that referred to people who were clearly not particularly intimate. I’d have to go back through my file from that course to verify it, though.

  15. Thanks, Björn, for the info on modern Icelandic; I wondered if that feature survived from Old Icelandic. It’s quite interesting how the forms come to be used.
    Gothic had not only dual forms of the 1st and 2nd person pronouns dual forms of some verbs. For instance the dual ‘siju’ and ‘sijuts’ versus the plural ‘sijum’ and ‘sijuþ’ 1st and 2nd person present forms of the verb ‘to be’. As far as I know, no other ancient/medieval Germanic dialect preserves such forms.
    Getting back to the dual pronouns, the distinction need not be of amicable intimacy. For instance in the Old English _Beowulf_, Beowulf refers to himself and his (friendly) rival Breca with the dual pronoun ‘wit’.
    I guess it’s a question of whether or not the use of the dual is required in a language when referring to two people. If it is possible to use either the dual or the plural for two people, then we can start looking for some other implication. In Old English, the use of the dual is optional, so what (if anything) informs the choice between the two?

  16. The only dual I dimly remember in Old English verse (& I could be mistaken, because I haven’t looked anything up) is that I think Beowulf uses it when recounting the story of how he and his buddy Breca fought off the sea-monsters. There’s plenty of other times when duals could be used but aren’t. So I extrapolate wildly and take “wit” to mean “me and my good buddy.” (Or “I and my comrade,” if you’re fussy.)

  17. In Old Norse (Edda) the dual pronouns were used correctly in all cases and as far as I know, without any additional meaning. Example: at iþ .. komit at sokia heim Atla “that you(two) will come to seek Atli’s home (Akv). I don’t know exactly about the usage in Sagas.
    In the earliest Old Russian, dual pronouns and verb forms (yes!) were used correctly, see for example Boris and Gleb. Later the usage of dual became a sign of learned language, so the form continued to be used, though with lesser accuracy.
    I can write something on the Old Russian duals, if you’re interested.

  18. Does this answer your question, language hat?
    From http://www.bartleby.com/68/68/2068.html:
    The noun dual is the name of a grammatical number: early Old English had a three-part declension of the personal pronouns, which had singular forms to refer to one, dual forms to refer to two, and plural forms to refer to three or more.

  19. Cryptic Ned says

    Arabic has dual pronouns (second and third person; no dual “we”), which are used pretty regularly in the standard, although I don’t know about the actual colloquial Arabic.
    To make a noun dual you add “aan” or “ayn” to the end of it. To make it plural you have to say the number and then the noun. To make it more complex, numbers up to ten use the plural of the noun, and then larger numbers use the singular again. But you always use the plural when you’re not specifying the number, except in the dual, in which case you use the dual.

  20. A little OT, but what always screwed me up in first-year Arabic was the fact that when you have number plus noun, the number takes the opposite gender from the noun! That always drove me nuts.

  21. Renee: Thanks, I was hoping you’d show up!
    Ned, Luis: Arabic is messy, isn’t it? Someday I’ll have to actually learn it instead of idly dabbling.

  22. As Tritton put it in the 1943 Teach Yourself Arabic: “The numerals are the nightmare of a bankrupt financier.”

  23. For Arabic, a quick Google search reveals
    62 occurrences of تقاتلا “they two fought each other” ;
    921 of تقاتلوا “they fought each other”
    157 of تعانقا “they two embraced each other”;
    66 of تعانقوا “they embraced each other”
    269 for تضاربا “they two came to blows”;
    109 for تضاربوا “they came to blows”.
    The interpretation is not obvious; but even if it were, most modern dialects have seriously restricted the dual, so this would not necessarily reflect the original “native speaker” intuitions. Oh, and just to mess up the Google counts, in Arabic orthography those forms are all indistinguishable from verbal nouns in the accusative…

  24. Czech has dual in some cases, mainly in instrumental, and with certain nouns in other cases. I wouldn’t say there’s any greater intimicy with dual, it’s “just grammar.” “Among us” would be “mezi nami” but “between us” would be “mezi nama” (dual). Speaking of which, one could regard “between” as a dual form of “among” in English, subject to the reservations expressed above.

  25. Adam Morehouse says

    Sanskrit for religious reasons uses the dual- duality. It seems all other languages retaining dual pronouns are of the Indo-European family. It is old though. Most seem to have dropped it.

  26. Adam, if you look up-thread, you’ll see examples of dual pronouns in non-Indo-European languages, e.g. Austronesian.

  27. Not to mention that grammar is not based on religion.

  28. Above, aldiboronti (March 29, 2004 at 8:02 am) cited and linked to a page on Māori grammar. The page died long ago, but the page, in addition to being in the Internet Archive, has moved to here:


  29. Thanks!

  30. David Marjanović says

    In case anyone has been wondering since 2004…

    Bavarian has also retained the dual forms. In fact those forms are the marker words for bavarian. The dual function though has gone and the words are now used as the plural form in addressing people. (or as is usual in german in the formal address.)

    As in most of the rest of German, the formal address uses the third person plural. The historically dual forms (/es/ nominative, /enk/ dative/accusative; note /e/ as opposed to /ɛ/) belong to the second person, not to the third.

    And yes, “both” is the suppletive dual of “all”. It is less suppletive in e.g. French and most Bavarian dialects, as it happens, where it has been replaced by a two-word construction “all two”.

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