This post is about person in grammar, a notion that we split up into (at least) three categories called “first”, “second” and “third” person. In English, there are personal pronouns corresponding to each of these categories, like I, you, or she.

There are many things to be said about pronouns and person, but I’ll focus on one that I find particularly interesting and that figures prominently in my dissertation: the degree to which the person of a subject and an object can influence the form of a predicate or the form of the subject or the object itself in different languages (see also Jim Baker’s excellent related posts here and here).

While English has person and different pronouns, its verbal morphology is not very interesting, so I will start with Hungarian. We’ll see some slightly complicated verb forms first, and when you’re all confused, I’ll tell you a about a beautifully simple way of how person influences verb forms in Hungarian.

Consider the examples in (1). The verb form with a first person subject in (1a) differs from the form with a third person subject in (1b) (in both Hungarian and English). This is called “subject agreement”, since the verb “agrees” with the subject. (A word about the examples: the first line shows the example in the language we’re talking about, the second line provides some grammatical information and English translations. “1SG” means “first person singular”, for example. The third line provides a full translation.)

(1) Hungarian
    a. Én lát-ok.
       I  see-1SG
       ‘I see.’

    b. Ő lát.
       s/he see.3SG
       ‘S/he sees.’

But Hungarian verbs do not only indicate the person of the subject, they can also indicate the person of the object. We can see this if we add a definite object, a third person pronoun in this case, to the sentences above. Now “1SG>3” means “first person singular subject and third person object”. Cool, right? (Note also the case ending on the object: “ACC” for “accusative”.)

(2) Hungarian
    a. Én lát-om    ő-t.
       I  see-1SG>3 s/he-ACC
       ‘I see him/her.’

    b. Ő    lát-ja    ő-t.
       s/he see-3SG>3 s/he-ACC
       ‘S/he sees him/her.’

If we look at the English verbs, we see that their forms differ based on whether the subject is first or third person, but it doesn’t make a difference whether they have an object (say a pronoun like her) or not. In other words, for each (subject) person, there is only one form in English per tense. In Hungarian, there are several forms: a verb can agree with the subject only, as in (1), or with the subject and the object, as in (2). To make things even more fun for learners and linguists alike, this only happens with some objects, though.

In another interesting spin, it depends on the person of both the subject and the object whether both are indicated on the verb. If the person of the subject is first person and the object is third person, like above, the verb seems to indicate both (in other words, the verb shows subject and object agreement; I’ll indicate this as “1>3”).

What happens in other persons? When the subject is third person and the object is first person (3>1), does the verb also show subject and object agreement? It does not!

(3) Hungarian
    Ő    lát     engem.
    s/he see.3SG me
    ‘S/he sees me.’

If we look at the verb form in the last sentence and the one in (1), they are the same: for a verb with a third person subject, it does not matter whether the verb has an object or not, it shows the same form lát meaning ‘s/he sees’.

Confusing, right? One more thing on Hungarian, though: the best way to show the sensitivity to the person of both the subject and the object is with second person objects:

(4) Hungarian
    a. Én lát-lak   téged.
       I  see-1SG>2 you
       ‘I see you.’
    b. Ő    lát     téged.
       s/he see.3SG you
       ‘S/he sees you.’

In (4b), the verb only shows the person of the subject (as with in (3)), but in (4a), the verb shows the person of the subject and of the object: -lak only appears with first person subjects and second person objects. The two sentences in (4) have the same object, but whether the verb shows object agreement depends on the person of the subject!

OK, so what’s the beautiful pattern behind all this? Consider this so-called “hierarchy”:

(5) 1 > 2 > 3

To decide whether a Hungarian verb shows agreement with both the subject and the object, we have to look at whether the person of the subject is higher than the person of the object. If this is the case, say with a first person subject and a second person object, or 1>2, we see agreement. This kind of configuration is called “direct”.

But if the object’s person is higher, say a third person subject and a first person object, or 3>1, there is no agreement in Hungarian. Such configurations are called “inverse”. (This is not quite the whole story for Hungarian, but it’s the general pattern. There are some references below if you’re really interested).

So far, this was about agreement, i.e. the form of the verb. However, the same hierarchy also influences the form of the subject or the object in some languages. In Kashmiri, for example, the case of the direct object depends on the person of both the subject and the object. If the object’s person is higher than the subject’s person, the object appears in object case (like him or her in English, as opposed to he and she). Compare the following examples:

(6) Kashmiri
    a. bı     chusath tsı      parınaːvaːn
       I.SUBJ am      you.SUBJ teaching
       ‘I am teaching you.’

    b. tsı      chukh me    parınaːvaːn
       you.SUBJ are   I.OBJ teaching
       “You are teaching me.”

In the first one, the subject’s person is higher than the object’s: 1>2, a direct configuration. Therefore the object is in its subject form, i.e. the same as in example (6b).  In that example, the person of the subject (2) is lower than the person of the object (1), and therefore the object has object case, i.e. me meaning, well, ‘me’ (as opposed to in (6a) meaning ‘I’).

To show that the same thing holds for second person, let’s see the following examples. First, the subject’s person (2nd) is higher than the object’s (3), and therefore the object has subject case (compare su in both sentences!). In the second example, however, the object’s person is higher and therefore shows up in object case (tse rather than tsi).

(7) Kashmiri
    a. tsı      chihan su      parınaːvaːn
       you.SUBJ are    he.SUBJ teaching
       ‘You are teaching him.’ (literally something like ‘you are teaching he’)

    b. su chuy tse parınaːvaːn
       he.SUBJ is you.OBJ teaching
       ‘He is teaching you.’

Again, the hierarchy in (5), 1 > 2 > 3, gives us a way to describe what’s going on: only if the object’s person is higher than the subject’s does the object show case-marking. In other words, the object shows case-marking in inverse configurations.

There are many other examples of similar patterns across the world: some Native American languages have both case-marking (like Kashmiri) and verb forms (a bit like Hungarian, but more complex) that differ depending on the person of the subject and the object.

To give a final example, the language Awtuw, spoken in Papua New Guinea, requires that some objects appear in object case, but this does not just depend on person, but also on whether the object is more “animate” than the subject. And you need to know that humans count as more animate than animals, in this language.

(8) Awtuw
    a. Tey tale-re yaw dæli
       the woman-OBJ pig bit
       ‘The pig bit the woman.’

    b. Tey tale yaw dæli
       the woman pig bit
       ‘The woman bit the pig.’

According to Feldman’s grammar of Awtuw, the more animate, human argument (the woman) can only be the object if it is specially marked by the suffix -re. Rather than looking at person directly, for Awtuw we seem to have a hierarchy that indicates

(9) human > animate

Is there a way to combine humanness or animacy and person? Many linguists think so! They suggest that hierarchies are quite large, like the one in (10), and that they incorporate both person and humanness.

(10) 1 > 2 > 3 > human > animate > inanimate

Languages differ in how they lump several levels together: in Hungarian, humanness or animacy do not play a role in determining the form of the verb, for example. In Awtuw, on the other hand, they do in determining the form of the object. And obviously, many languages do not show these effects at all.

Languages obviously differ in whether such hierarchies influence agreement or case morphology, both, or neither, but there are nevertheless some very interesting generalisations that seem to hold across languages. “Special” marking like object case in Kashmiri or Awtuw tends to appear when the object’s person (or animacy) is higher than the subject’s but not when the subject’s person or animacy is higher than the object’s. It seems that direct configurations are “the norm”, while inverse configurations are “special”.

Why should this happen so regularly?

Some linguists suggest that the most typical kinds of subjects in transitive clauses tend to be high on the hierarchy, while objects tend to be low and therefore those constructions are expressed in a special way that diverge from this norm.

Another way to describe hierarchies is to assume that “1” and “2” represent more complex notions: 1 stands for the features “speaker, participant, person”, whereas 2 stands for “participant, person”, and 3 merely for “person”. This way of defining “person” makes first person the most specific and third person the least specific. First person always includes the speaker, but the reference of third person is much, much less restricted, and this might be a way of capturing this specificity in reference — and the fact that first and second person tend to behave in more “special” ways than third person.

To sum up, person, as inconspicuous as it is in English grammar, does fascinating things in languages all over the world, leading to case-marking here and agreement there — or in fact making certain sentences impossible. Jelinek and Carnie (2003) report of the Native American language Lummi that it is not possible to say “he advised us” (with a first person object):

“Speakers produce the example sentences comfortably until they are asked to say ‘He advised us’. Then they stop, look surprised and uneasy, and then if they are good consultants, after a while may say something like ‘Well, we don’t say it that way. You might say ‘We were advised’, but it’s not really the same, is it?’”


I decided to keep references out of the text to make it more legible. Here they come.

If you’re interested in literature about Hungarian agreement, here are some recent papers that include further references:

Bárány, András (2015). ‘Inverse agreement and Hungarian verb paradigms’. In: Approaches to Hungarian:
    Volume 14, Papers from the 2013 Piliscsaba Conference. Ed. by Katalin É. Kiss, Balázs Surányi and Éva
    Dékány. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 37–64. doi: 10.1075/atoh.14.02bar.

Coppock, Elizabeth (2013). ‘A semantic solution to the problem of Hungarian object agreement’.
    Natural Language Semantics 21.4, 345–371. doi: 10.1007/s11050-013-9096-7.

Coppock, Elizabeth and Stephen Wechsler (2012). ‘The objective conjugation in Hungarian: Agreement
    without phi-features’. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 30.3, 699–740.
    doi: 10.1007/s11049-012-9165-5.

É. Kiss, Katalin (2013). ‘The Inverse Agreement Constraint in Uralic Languages’. Finno-Ugric Languages
    and Linguistics 2.3, 2–21.

For Kashmiri, Awtuw and Lummi, see the following references. Examples (6) and (7) are from Wali and Koul (1997: 155); example (8) is from Feldman (1986: 110). The quote about Lummi is from Jelinek and Carnie (2003: 285).

Feldman, Harry (1986). A Grammar of Awtuw. Canberra: The Australian National University.

Jelinek, Eloise and Andrew Carnie (2003). ‘Argument hierarchies and the mapping principle’. In: Formal
    Approaches to Function in Grammar: In honor of Eloise Jelinek. Ed. by Andrew Carnie, Heidi Harley and
    MaryAnn Willie. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 265–296. doi: 10.1075/la.62.20jel.

Wali, Kashi and Omkar N. Koul (1997). Kashmiri: A cognitive-descriptive grammar. New York: Routledge.

Finally, there is some more about hierarchies and “typical” subject-object configurations here, …

Aissen, Judith (2003). ‘Differential object marking: iconicity vs. economy’. Natural Language & Linguistic
    Theory 21.3, 435–483. doi: 10.1023/A:1024109008573.

Comrie, Bernard (1989). Language Universals and Linguistic Typology. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of
    Chicago Press.

Keine, Stefan (2010). Case and Agreement from Fringe to Core: A Minimalist Approach. Berlin/New York:
    De Gruyter.

Richards, Marc (2008). ‘Defective Agree, Case Alternations, and the Prominence of Person’. In:
    Scales. Ed. by Marc Richards and Andrej L. Malchukov. Linguistische Arbeitsberichte
    86. Universität Leipzig, 137-161.

… while the following paper is about treating person as more complex categories.

Harley, Heidi and Elizabeth Ritter (2002). ‘Person and Number in Pronouns: A Feature-Geometric
    Analysis’. Language 78.3, 482–526. doi: 10.1353/lan.2002.0158.