This article offers a case study of three absolute universals ranging over inventories of person marking in morphology. Certain logically possible distinctions are never drawn in morpheme inventories (either as pronouns or as agreement markers), though these distinctions may be expressed in other ways (and hence are not impossible a priori or for reasons of general cognition). After reviewing the literature, and dismissing apparent counter-examples, I submit that these universals bear on issues of formal versus functional explanation in linguistics, and suggest that the functionalist explanations of these facts currently on offer fall short of the mark. At least in this domain, it appears that there is a universal inventory of features which delimits the range of possible “persons” in language.
©Walter de Gruyter