Using Stick Figures to Understand First, Second, and Third Person

Gretchen McCulloch from the All Things Linguistic blog shares some interesting perspectives and great tips for remembering the difference between first, second, and third person.

Gretchen McCulloch, read by Mignon Fogarty,
June 5, 2014
Episode #419

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Third Person

Finally, what happens when we add a third stick figure?

one personone person

Now we have an exciting new possibility: gossip! 

Gossip is basically just people talking about other people. Since we have three of them, stick figure number one can say to stick figure number two, "Hey, do you think he/she/it brought any food?" And get a reply like, "I dunno, why don't you ask him/her/it?" 

Three people, third person. There's a whole bunch of these pronouns: he, she, it, him, her, his, hers, its (that's the its without the apostrophe, if you want to keep track), or singular they, them, theirs

Of course, just because there are three people doesn't mean that they can't keep talking about themselves (first person) or to each other (second person). 

Third Person Plural

What if you have more than three people? 

Now the number of persons refers to how many groups of people you're thinking of. A single group of people can speak all as one voice ("WE WANT FOOD!") or one person can speak on behalf of the group ("I think we'd like some food,”), but in either case they'll use first person pronouns such as we and us

Two groups of people can address each other in the second person plural ("Oh yeah? You think you want food more than us?"). English officially uses you for both singular and plural, but unofficially it has several extra options for the plural, including you guys, youse, you all, and y'all

And three groups of people can talk about each other in the third person plural using they and them: “If they didn’t bring any food with them, we might have to resort to cannibalism.”

Strictly speaking, in fact, you don’t need to have two or three whole groups in order to use the second or third person plural, since you can talk to or about a group of people as a single first-person speaker. 

Limitations of Person in English

So far, so good. But you might also notice some potential flaws with this design. In any interaction, you’re going to have a single, identifiable speaker or group of speakers (first person) and a single, identifiable hearer or group of hearers (second person), which linguists refer to as speech act participants. But sometimes you’re going to have several different third persons (or non-speech act participants) who you want to talk about. What can you do to tell them apart? 

In English, you’re basically stuck hoping that your several third parties have different genders, so you can use he for one, she for another, and it for the third, but if they don’t, you’ll just need to use their actual names more often if you don’t want your listener to get confused. 

Person in Other Languages

But in other languages, such as those in the Algonquian language family, there’s another strategy, called obviation. In these languages, when you have more than one third person, you pick one of them to be more important and the other to be less important, effectively a fourth person. 

When you first mention a less important name or noun, you add a particular suffix, which later lets the speaker distinguish between the more important, "real" third person and the less important, fourth person. For example, imagine the word “fourth” is a suffix. We could use it in a sentence with two men like this: "Chris saw Alex-fourth and then three asked four to give three some food.” Now it's clear who's asking and being asked, and it works even if we don't know the genders of the people involved or if they're both the same gender. It also conveniently tells you something about which of the two people the speaker is more interested in focusing on. If we want an unambiguous sentence in English, we have to hope that Chris is male and Alex is female, or vice versa, but in languages with this additional "fourth person" marking, it doesn't matter. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure how you’d go about implementing a fourth person system in English, but it does seem like it would be useful sometimes! 

This article was written by Gretchen McCulloch who blogs at All Things Linguistic. Check out her site for other great posts.

Stick figure image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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