Are there any languages that have a pronoun which is only used to refer to royalty?

Linguistics Asked on December 21, 2021

I can recall reading an article years ago which claimed that some languages have unused "royal" pronouns. That is, these pronouns were only used to refer to royalty as a show of respect or reverence, however, such pronouns had apparently fallen out of favor over time with the general decline of monarchies in the world. I can’t remember which languages the article claimed had these pronouns nor what the pronouns were.

I am aware of the concept of the royal we, which appears in English as well as a few other languages, however, I would consider this to be a case of an already existing pronoun being repurposed. I want to know if some languages have a pronoun which is only ever used to refer to royalty and has no purpose otherwise. Most likely, if such pronouns exist, I would expect them to be uncommon and modern native speakers might not even know them. It’s also possible that I’m mistaken and pronouns like this don’t exist in any major language, in this case it would at least be nice to get some confirmation.

3 Answers

Malay (Malaysian, Indonesian and Brunei) is one such language/family of languages. Though the use of royal pronouns are not current in Indonesia (considering Indonesia no longer have functioning royalties) they are still used in Malaysia and Brunei.

First Person pronoun

Malay has several first person pronouns (mainly because the modern Malay language/languages developed from trying to standardize the various Malay dialects/languages):

  • I = saya, aku, gue, gua, kita, kamek, kome, koi etc.

  • When talking to a royal, I = patik (sometimes spelled patek) or hamba (literally means slave)

  • King or Sultan talking, I = beta (Note that this is reserved for the monarch, other members of the royal families don't use this)

Second Person pronoun

  • When talking to a king, you = tuanku (literally means my master but spelled as one word. "ku" = myself, "tuan" = master)

However I would like to note that English also does not use "you" when talking to kings and have an equivalent "Your Majesty" instead.

Third Person pronoun

  • he, she = dia (pronouns in Malay are not gendered)

  • Royal he, she = baginda (Note that this is also used to refer to revered religious figures especially when referring to Prophet Muhammad)

Answered by slebetman on December 21, 2021

According to Travis' comment in a Language Log blog post titled Royal Language, a first-person pronoun 朕 (chin) was used exclusively by the Japanese Emperor. (I note that this seems to be the same as the 'jim' mentioned in jick's answer.)

This paper suggests that 'I Ratu' is a second person pronoun used when addressing royalty in Balinese, but also mentions its usage when speaking to a person from a higher social stratum. Meanwhile, this paper says 'gelah' is a first-person pronoun that is used by royalty in Balinese.

Answered by user2474226 on December 21, 2021

From what I've heard, Korean has traditionally had two first-person pronouns reserved for royalty: 과인(gwain, 寡人) and 짐 (jim, 朕). They are both borrowed from classical Chinese, I think.

Korea does not have kings any more, and we only had emperors for a very brief period (when it was an empire in name only), so I'm not sure if there were ever consistent rules for these words, but from what I've heard, gwain was reserved for a king, and jim was for an emperor.

Somewhat amusingly, the original meaning of gwain is "one without enough virtue (寡德之人)" - these kings were such fervent believers of Confucianism that it apparently made perfect sense for them to call themselves "someone who still needs to be more virtuous."

Answered by jick on December 21, 2021

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