“We”: conceptual semantics, linguistic typology and social cognition

Cliff Goddard*, Anna Wierzbicka

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    7 Citations (Scopus)


    This paper explores “we-words” in the languages of the world, using the NSM method of semantic analysis. A simply phrased, cross-translatable explication for English ‘we’ [1pl] is proposed, suitable also for other languages with a single we-word. At the same time, it is argued that English ‘we’ co-lexicalises a second distinct meaning “we two” [1du], and that the same goes for other languages with a single we-word. The two explications are identical, except for being based on ALL and TWO, respectively. Both explications involve components of “I-inclusion” (roughly, ‘I am one of them’) and “subjective identification” (roughly, ‘I'm thinking about them all in the same way’). It is argued, furthermore, that both meanings (“we-all” and “we-two”) are likely to be found in all languages. To establish this, one has to take account of languages which manifest the “inclusive/exclusive” distinction. For such languages, evidence suggests that one of the two we-words contains a semantic component of “you-inclusion”, while the other is semantically unmarked. Languages whose “we words” encode kinship relations are also briefly considered. The analysis has implications for the typology of pronoun systems, for theorising about human social cognition, and for the lexical semantics of key social concepts.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number101327
    JournalLanguage Sciences
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


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