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Unspecific or arbitrary 3SG pronoun

Unspecific personal pronouns are also referred to as arbitrary pronouns, indefinite pronouns, generic pronouns or impersonal pronouns. The 3SG pronoun men is used for arbitrary reference. The weak 2PL pronoun jo / je can also be used for unspecific personal reference, as well as the 2SG pronoun do, if pronounced with a schwa. Both pronouns include the speaker. Do, when pronounced with a full vowel, cannot be used for unspecific reference, unlike jo.


The meaning of the unspecific personal subject pronoun men usually includes the speaker, unlike Dutch men. The following sentences are ungrammatical, since they exclude the speaker:

Example 1

a. *Men seit dat smoken net sûn is
one says that smoking not healthy is
They say that smoking is not healthy
b. *Yn 'e 19e ieu hat men dy stins ôfbrutsen
in the nineteenth-century has one that manor down.tear
That manor was torn down in the 19th century

In order to express such meanings, Frisian employs the same means as English: a passive construction is used, or the third person plural pronoun with a verb of saying. As mentioned, men includes the speaker. As a result, it can even be sloppily coreferential with the first person pronoun:

Example 2

Ik wenje yn sa'n drokke strjitte, men kriget nachts gjin wink yn 'e eagen
I live in such.a busy street one gets night no wink in the eyes
I am living in such a busy street, I do not get a wink of sleep at night

Men is ordinarily pronounced with a schwa, but it can also be stressed, and then it is pronounced with a mid front vowel (as in the English word men). In that case, its meaning is roughly people like me, the likes of me. An example is provided below:

Example 3

In oar hat it dien en men kriget de skuld
an other has it done and one gets the blame
Someone else did it and I get the blame

Men has an object form jin and a possessive form jins. The last two forms derive historically from the indefinite pronoun ienone. Examples are given below:

Example 4

a. Men moat net alles leauwe wat se jin fertelle
one must not everything believe what they one tell
One should not believe everything that they tell one
b. Jins ûnthâld wurdt mei de jierren minder
one's memory gets with the years worse
One's memory gets worse with the years

Competing with men are the 2SG pronoun jo / je and the weak form (that is, pronounced with a schwa) of the 2SG pronoun do. These forms obligatorily include the speaker:

Example 5

a. Soks dogge je net
such.a.thing do you not
You do not do things like that
b. Do kinst poerbêst ite yn dat restaurant
you can.2SG very.well eat in that restaurant
You can eat very well in that restaurant

The pro-dropped form can also have an unspecific inclusive interpretation:

Example 6

Kinst poerbêst ite yn dat restaurant
can.2SG very.well eat in that restaurant
You can eat very well in that restaurant

In older Frisian, the pronoun men could also be construed with a plural verb form:

Example 7

Mem sei, sa út 'e doar wei: Men soene der sin oan krije om mei
mother said so from the door away one would.PL it.R liking to get for with
Mother said, standing in the doorway, one would almost feel like accompanying them

The pronoun can also be the antecedent for a reciprocal, though the verb is in the singular. Apparently, the pronoun can be semantically plural:

Example 8

Men moat inoar helpe
one must each.other help
One must help each other

Unspecific pronouns can be argued to be definite, as is clear from the following facts. First, they may appear as content noun in the partitive construction, just as definite pronouns may:

Example 9

a. Ien fan ús moat de foarstap nimme
one of us must the first.step take
One of us has to take the first step
b. Ien fan jin moat de foarstap nimme
one of one must the first.step take
One of us has to take the first step

Second, unspecific pronouns may not appear in the existential there-construction, which makes sense if they are definite. Third, they may just like definite pronouns be combined with a predicative phrase:

Example 10

a. As goefries moat men altyd ferkâlden wêze
as good-Frisian must one always having.a.cold be
As a good Frisian one must always have a cold
b. As goefries moat ik altyd ferkâlden wêze
as good-Frisian must I always having.a.cold be
As a good Frisian I must always have a cold

The indefinite pronoun ienone differs in all these three respects from unspecific pronouns. This is illustrated below for the test with a predicate phrase:

Example 11

*As goefries moat ien altyd ferkâlden wêze
as good-Frisian must one always having.a.cold be
As a good Frisian one must always have a cold

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x Literature

More details can be found in Hoekstra (2010).

  • Hoekstra, Jarich2010On the impersonal pronoun men in Modern West FrisianThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics1331-59
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