This first person singular — that’s ‘I’, meaning ‘me’ — has increasing difficulties with the first person plural — that’s ‘we’, meaning ‘us’. Every day I come across phrases, usually freighted with some agonised self-flagellating subtext, or so I assume, that say something like (and I paraphrase here)
We are causing the destruction of the endangered crimp-eyed chuzzbanger
and I ask myself – who is this ‘we’ referred to in the
third fifth foregoing?
Does this ‘we’ include me, personally, the reader? If not, all I can say is, well, people, you should do better. For goodness’ sake go forth and improve the status of the crimp-eyed chuzzbanger, and don’t complain to me about it.
If, however, I suspect, the ‘we’ is meant to include me, personally, then I ask myself a more serious question — how is it that the author of these sentiments is so convinced of their rightness such that any view I might have in the matter — someone the author might not know, or have met — is automatically set at naught, having no value, and overridden? Notwithstanding inasmuch as which the case of the crimp-eyed chuzzbanger might merit urgent action, has anyone actually asked me whether I might have an opinion on the matter?
Therefore I ask myself whether the first person plural as presently constituted is too blunt an instrument, or, to use a modish cliche, Not Fit For
Porpoises Purpose. For it encompasses many different things, such as (and possibly not exhaustively)
- a well-defined group of people that includes the author of the statement and a small group of people in a team that includes the author and known to them. We, this team of conservationists, that’s me and Carol and Bob and Ted and Alice, is going to do something about the crimp-eyed chuzzbanger.
- a more-or-less well-defined group of people that includes the author but explicitly not anyone who happens to read or hear that statement. We, a team of conservationists, is going to do something about the crimp-eyed chuzzbanger, but you can stay at home.
- a less well-defined group of people that includes the author of the statement and anyone the author might never have met or know personally, such as readers of a book or the audience of a broadcast. We, humanity in general, need to do something about the crimp-eyed chuzzbanger, irrespective of the views of any individual.
The English language is clearly deficient in that it seems unable to express these shades of meaning. We should do something about it.
There is a solution to this. It comes from tok pisin (usually known as ‘pidgin’) the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. I was vaguely aware of this, having been told about it long ago by Jared Diamond [namedrop namedrop – Ed] as part of a cautionary tale, that tok pisin has a complexity and subtlety that can trip up those who assume it’s childishly simple, when it isn’t. However, I came across it again in concrete form in Dictionary of Languages by Andrew Dalby, a fabulous book I picked up secondhand the other day, in which the author discusses the richness of personal pronouns in tok pisin. I quote:
… for the first person these are mi ‘I’, yumitupela ‘we, including person addressed, total two’, yumitripela ‘ditto, total three’, yumi ‘ditto, indefinite total’, mitupela ‘we two, excluding person addressed’, mitripela ‘we three, ditto’, mipela, ‘we all, ditto’.