March 25, 2004

Wit oððe we, unc oððe us

A student in my Old English class asked me an interesting question today. We were reading Wulf and Eadwacer and pondering the use of pronouns in the poem. In the refrain line (Ungelic is us ‘It is different with us’, or something along those lines), the speaker uses the plural pronoun us, and it is not clear who this ‘us’ is or how many people it refers to. Later in the poem the speaker refers to Uncerne earne hwelp ‘our wretched whelp’ and uncer giedd geador ‘our song together’ using the dual pronoun uncer.1 It’s still unclear who the pronoun refers to — there seems to be a love triangle in the poem, so it refers to the speaker and one of the two men, Wulf or Eadwacer — but it is clear that it refers to only two people. It has been suggested (though I don’t know if it has been universally accepted) that the plural refers to the speaker and one of the two men, and the dual refers to the speaker and the other of the two men.

My student asked me if the use of the dual pronoun implied 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)?

1 Old English has dual-number forms of the 1st and 2nd personal pronouns:
wit, unc, uncer ‘we two, us two, etc.’ and git, inc, incer ‘you two, etc.’, as opposed to the plural we, us, ure ‘we, us, our’ and ge, eow, eower ‘you, you, your’.

Posted by Mark at March 25, 2004 03:26 PM

Not in the ones I speak well (Sesotho and French). I don’t speak the others well enough to be able to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ with certainty. It is an interesting and I suppose uncommon language property.

Posted by: Rethabile Masilo at March 25, 2004 07:24 PM

Maori has dual pronouns, but in the plural they are further marked as “inclusive” or “exclusive”: “maua” is we-dua-inclusive = “you and I (but not necessarily) others”, “taua” is we-dual = “I and another, but not you”. You must signal inclusive vs exclusive, so there are no overtones of intimacy in the choice of the dual number per se, it’s choosing the exclusive or inclusive pronoun that matters.

“Matou” and “tatou” are the inclusive and exclusive 1st person plural pronouns; “koe”, “korua”, and “koutou” are the 2nd person singular, dual and plural pronouns respectively. I’m not a linguist, but I find “korua” evocative of “git”. “Rua” is “two”, so I hear both “korua” and “git” as “you two”.

Which reminds me; in my native New Zealand English, we have “you”, “you two”, and either “youse” or “you fullas”. ;-)

Posted by: stephen at March 28, 2004 11:50 PM

Damnit, I fat-fingered that.

That should be:

“maua” is we-dual-inclusive = “you and I (but not another)”, “taua” is we-dual-exclusive = “I and another, but not you”.

Posted by: stephen at March 29, 2004 12:07 AM


That’s a beautiful verb. Does it mean “screwed up when typing” because of fat fingers? Love it.

Posted by: Rethabile Masilo at March 29, 2004 06:43 AM

Mark: There are some interesting comments at the thread I posted about this.

Posted by: language hat at March 29, 2004 04:15 PM

Yes, it does mean screwed up typing. Although I hear it ironically applied when it was in fact the brain that was at fault. “Who buggered up the samba config file?” “Someone with fat fingers.”

Posted by: stephen at March 29, 2004 04:50 PM