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Common personal pronouns in Classical Chinese


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Note: in this thread, I'd like to explicitly exclude the pronouns usually derived from nouns commonly used in higher speech registers such as 寡人 and so forth. I'll also disregard some rather uncommon pronouns such as 卬 áng and 朕 zhèn etc.

I'll base the following explanations mainly on Pulleyblank and Wang Li.

1st person: 我、吾、余‧予

Preclassically, the difference between 我 and 余 was one of number, as expressions such as 余一人 (used by the Zhou king) and 我國 show. By the classical period, this distinction had largely broken down, and 余‧予 had become rare (early regional texts such as the 楚辭 make a distinction akin to 我 and 吾 though). According to Pulleyblank and Wang Li (they actually totally agree about this :mrgreen: ), these are the major differences between 我、吾:

  • 吾 usually appears in the front of the word it depends on, i.e. usually as possessive: 吾手 "my hand" or as a subject 吾來 "I come" (or "my coming"). However, in an inverted construction it can also appear as an object in preverbal position: 不吾知 "does not know me"
  • 我 can also appear in front of a noun as a possessive and in front of a verb as a subject (!), but also after a verb as an object. It seems to be more emphatic and contrastive than 吾: 晉楚之富不可及也, 彼以其富, 我以吾仁, 彼以其爵, 我以吾義 吾何慊哉. Zengzi said: 'The wealth of Jin and Chu cannot be attained to. They with their wealth, I with my benevolence, they with their honours, I with my righteousness, why should I be dissatisfied?' (Mencius)

2nd person: 女, 爾, 若, 而, 乃

About the evolution of 2nd person pronouns from pre-classical to classical to post-classical see this post.

Pulleyblank has this to say:

女(汝)and 爾 are both used as subjects and objects, there seems to be some difference in usage, which at this point is rather poorly understood. 而 is rather uncommon and like 吾 restricted to subject and possessive position. 若 is only found in later texts such as 莊子. 乃 is a pre-classical form, less common in classical texts.

Wang Li just mentions that both 而 and 乃 cannot be used in object position, are rarely used in subject position, which means they're usually used as possessives

3rd person: 之, 其

There are no general third person pronouns in Classical Chinese.

之 is used in object position only, and 其 in possessive position only. In subject position, the noun is either repeated, omitted or substituted by a demonstrative pronoun such as 是 or 彼.

Postclassical pronouns include 伊 yī, 渠 qú, 他 tā. The last one begins to appear in colloquial texts after the Han period.

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