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Most languages I am familiar with have six different person/number combinations for verbs:

Singular

  • 1st (I)
  • 2nd (you)
  • 3rd (he/she/it)

*Plural

  • 1st (we)
  • 2nd (you (all))
  • 3rd (they)

Obviously, verb conjugation is more complicated than just these combinations (other features include tenses, aspects, mood (eg imperative), and gerunds), but for now, just focus on person/number. Is there some way to collapse these six combinations into five? On a related note, are there any natural languages with five conjugations?

Also, I need exactly five conjugations. Are there normal languages with only five conjugations? If there aren't, what would be the most realistic way to implement this?

  • You can collapse them anyway you really like. – curiousdannii Dec 4 '19 at 9:53
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If you have two features (number/person), it seems tricky to have five options (or any other odd number for that matter). However, there is an easy way: simply collapse singular and plural for one of the persons.

There is actually a real example in English (and several other languages): the pluralis majestatis ("Royal We"). Simply discard the first person singular and use the first person plural instead.

We are not sure what other languages use this, but we have definitely heard it in English and German. It would not be surprising to us if it occurred in other languages as well.

Sounds a bit odd, but would be an easy option.

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  • "You" for singular and plural is standard English – b a Dec 29 '19 at 14:47
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Modern High German is like that: The verb endings for the 1pl and 3pl are always the same (e.g., wir sind, sie sind; wir haben, sie haben). Some dialects of German are going even further having the same endings for all plural forms.

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  • But while the endings are homographs, they are still grammatically separate; German has 3 persons in both singular and plural. Otherwise you could argue that English only has two - I/you/we/you/they have and he|she|it has... – Oliver Mason Dec 8 '19 at 9:46
  • @OliverMason You can look at the conjugation as strictly changing the verb forms. And the person would then be realized in some other manner (syntax...). – Radovan Garabík Dec 16 '19 at 12:21
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Existing Other Person Conjugations

The wikipedia page on Grammatical Person, has this to say (emphasis mine):

Some Algonquian languages and Salishan languages divide the category of third person into two parts: proximate for a more topical third person, and obviative for a less topical third person. The obviative is sometimes called the fourth person.

The term fourth person is also sometimes used for the category of indefinite or generic referents, which work like one in English phrases such as "one should be prepared" or people in people say that..., when the grammar treats them differently from ordinary third-person forms. The so-called "zero person" in Finnish and related languages, in addition to passive voice may serve to leave the subject-referent open. Zero person subjects are sometimes translated as "one," but the problem with that is that English language constructions involving one, e.g. "One hopes that will not happen," are rare[citation needed] and could be considered expressive of an overly academic tone to the majority of people, while Finnish sentences like "Ei saa koskettaa" ("Not allowed to touch") are recognizable to and used by young children in both languages.


I think the grammatical persons of a language would be based on how the speakers of that language interact.

I would personally collapse singular and plural, and then think about what other possible persons there could be, adding fourth and fifth person conjugations as is fitting, but you could also remove a person.

No First Person

For example, you could have a heavy emphasis on an ego-less society, which would do away with the first-person. Pravic would refer to the "I" or "me" in the third person, as "The speaker".

Class-Based Person

Or you could have a language with a strong sense of caste or class, where there are separate second-person conjugations for people in higher, lower, or the same class.

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There is of course Esperanto, conflating 2nd person singular and plural (let's ignore ci), very much the same as in English. Although, since the verb does not change (by person/number), I would not call this a conjugation.

There are other ways how to achieve exactly five conjugations. E. g. in pre-1953 Slovak in the past tense (that is also used for the conditional), the singular distinguished three genders (masculine, feminine, neutrum), but the verb form stays the same for each person. While in plural, only two different forms are present - masculine animate and "everything else". 3+2=5.

Example:

Singular:

  • masculine: 1st person chodil som, 2nd person chodil si, 3rd person chodil
  • feminine: 1st person chodila som, 2nd person chodila si, 3rd person chodila
  • neutrum: 1st person chodilo som, 2nd person chodilo si, 3rd person chodilo

Plural:

  • masculine animate: 1st person chodili sme, 2nd person chodili ste, 3rd person chodili
  • other: 1st person chodily sme, 2nd person chodily ste, 3rd person chodily

(som/si/sme/ste is an auxilliary verb).

Contemporary Czech has also exactly 5 conjugations in the past tense, but distributed differently (singular masculine, singular feminine+plural neutrum, singular neutrum, plural masculine animate, plural masculine inanimate+feminine)

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