Linguimericks—Book ६२ SpecGram Vol CLXXXIV, No 3 Contents Thank You, Philosophy of Language—The Third Autonomous Bilborough Linguistics Circle

Geothermal Influences on Second-Person Clusivity

Pele Vulcan
University of Eyjafjallajökull

Does any language have a clusivity distinction in the second-person pronouns, i.e. a pronoun that specifically means “you and them” as opposed to “you” alone? As discussed by Simon (2005), answers range from “yes, and here are some examples” to “no, and in fact the human mind cannot even handle such a distinction” with a range of shrugs and maybes in between. This, however, is not the question I will be addressing here, but one which has received far less attention: the role of volcanoes in language change.

Simon (op. cit.), discussing variation in pronoun forms in the Ambrym language of the eponymous island, says in a footnote:

Let me mention in passing that this distributional picture of forms on the roughly triangular island looks suspiciously similar to what we find in dialect geography when an innovative form spreads from a centre outwards and where the outer edges still retain the old form. However, this cannot be a good characterisation of the diachrony of the pronouns in the varieties of Ambrym because this would entail an innovation by the volcanos.

Innovation by volcanoes may be unlikely, but innovation due to volcanoes is an interesting possibility that has been (some would say fairly) overlooked.* For one thing, if the center of the volcanic island had been inhabited previously, the population would have dispersed and/or decreased very rapidly indeed following an eruption.

But I propose a deeper causal link: presence of a natural hazard in the form of a volcano may well motivate the development of clusivity in second-person pronouns. Consider the following utterances:

  1. Run! Don’t let the hot lava get you-INCL!
  2. Run! Don’t let the hot lava get you and your spouse and your kids and your little dog and the stranger that is within your gates...

Clearly (1) is more efficient in a dangerous situation when you don’t want to waste time specifying that the hot lava shouldn’t be allowed to get non-participants in the discourse either. Having to say (2) would be maladaptive for the speaker’s own chances of escape.

The influence of volcanoes on language change is, so far, an untrodden fieldand one where many would avoid treading, as if the floor were lava. But with further research these subtle rumbles under the surface may yet erupt with a seismic shift that will shake up all of linguistics and bury the old paradigm in tephra.


Simon, Horst J. (2005). “Only you? Philological investigations into the alleged inclusive-exclusive distinction in the second person plural”. In Filimonova, E., editor, Clusivity. Typology and case studies of the inclusive-exclusive distinction. Benjamins.

* Except, of course, for the popularized claim that “the Polynesians” have n words for lava, where n is some impressive-sounding number somewhere between two and a thousand. See Geoffrum Pulley’s “The Great Polynesian Vocabulary Hoax” for discussion.

LinguimericksBook ६२
Thank You, Philosophy of LanguageThe Third Autonomous Bilborough Linguistics Circle
SpecGram Vol CLXXXIV, No 3 Contents