How Society Shapes Language: Personal Pronouns in the Greater Burma Zone

André Müller 1  and Rachel Weymuth 1
  • 1 Department of Comparative Linguistics, University of Zurich, Plattenstrasse 54, 8032 Zurich, Switzerland
André Müller and Rachel Weymuth


In the “Greater Burma Zone”, an area that includes Myanmar and adjacent regions of the neighboring countries, there are two different systems of personal pronouns that occur predominantly: a grammatical one and one that we call “hierarchical system”. The aim of this paper is to explain the two systems and their development. A sample of 42 languages shows that smaller language communities have grammatical systems and the most dominant languages today have hierarchical ones. Besides these two groups, there are also some languages with a “mixed system”, which means the grammatical system is retained and only a few honorific terms are added as pronouns. An important question will therefore be why the systems are distributed just in this way. Several factors seem to play a role, among them sociocultural structures, historical developments and language contact.

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