Due to the way pronouns work in place of any particular noun (subject or object) in the sentence, this often leads to ambiguous grammatical constructions.

Take this phrase in English for example:

Adam sent the essay to James to help him with his writing

Do him and his refer to Adam (where James will help edit Adam's essay or give him suggestions) or James (where Adam is sending James an exemplar to help James see examples of good writing)?

How would ambiguities like this be avoided in constructed languages? I know a simple solution is to just eliminate pronouns from the language but is there an alternative solution to allow pronouns to be used unambiguously?

up vote 32 down vote accepted

Here are three options you might want to consider:

Noun classes assign each noun a class (well known examples include the gender systems of Indo-European languages, and also the more elaborate systems of Bantu languages). Having pronouns agree with the noun class of the nouns talked about greatly helps reduce ambiguity, though it would likely not help in your specific example with two male human participants.

Obviation is the system of having two distinct third person pronouns, one (the proximal) referring to the most salient (important, topical) referent and one (the obviative) to less salient ones. In your example, likely Adam would be the proximal, and James the obviative. There are nice examples on the relevant Wikipedia article.

A third option, which is to my knowledge only attested in signed languages is Indexing. This is basically the human language equivalent of variables in programming languages: a new variable, usually a location in the sign space, is assigned to every important referent, and referred to by pointing at the location or otherwise involving the location during signing of relevant words. I believe Lojban does something similar to this as well.

  • +1, the idea of proximate and obviative pronouns was what I had in mind (without knowing the proper terms at the time) and I'm glad someone answered with that as one of the ideas. However, how would one avoid ambiguity in a sentence such as Adam gave James's father sleeping pills to help with his [obviative] stress? (it's a bad example, I know)? Does "his" refer to James or James's father? – HyperNeutrino Feb 6 at 22:58
  • yes lojban has "assignable pro-sumti and pro-bridi" lojban.org/publications/cll/cll_v1.1_xhtml-section-chunks/… – user15 Feb 6 at 23:04
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    @HyperNeutrino in that case ambiguity could be resolved by having either James or James' father (and the possessor) be proximal. In an isolated example like that this would be perfectly reasonable, assuming you don't have a problem with shifting the focus away from Adam, in a stretch of natural discourse, whether this would be reasonable or not would depend on various factors, such as which of the participants is already the established topic, etc. Such shifts can resolve a lot of (but not all) ambiguous cases if really necessary. – Gufferdk Feb 7 at 13:20
  • I like the recommendation of indexing. If you want to learn more about variables, mathematical logic or lambda calculus is a better place to start than programming languages. Popular programming languages have complexity irrelevant to the task. De Bruijn indexing in lambda calculus may be interesting. – beroal Feb 8 at 8:25

In addition to the options mentioned by Adarain and Jan, various reflexives and reflexive-like operations can often be of use in dealing with such situations. English already has some reflexives, providing some amount of disambiguation, Danish goes a little further has a compulsory reflexive/non-reflexive distinction in 3rd person possessives, and while the specific example you mentioned doesn't work well in translation, a similarly problematic sentence "Adam sent James his essay" can be easily somewhat disambiguated with this system:

Adami sendte Jamesj sini stil

Adami sendte Jamesj hansj(/k) stil

It is possible for reflexive systems to be significantly more broad than this, rather than just referring to antecedents in the same clause, even if it's omitted via some other rule, e.g. in "Jonh saw Adam and shot himself in the foot", where there is no overt reference to John in the second clause, because it's been omitted due to subject coreference (such deletion rules, when constraints are put on them is actually another way of reducing ambiguity, I have relatively recently written a rather long forum post on this which goes into much more detail about them), it's possible to have "long-distance reflexives" which take antecedents outside of the clause.

In Mandarin, the reflexive ziji can refer to both local and non-local antecedents in some cases:

Zhangsan renwei Lisi kan-bu-qi ziji
Zhangsan think Lisi look-not-up REFL
"Zhangsani thinks Lisij looks down on selfi/j"

Certain things block this though, for example shifts in perspective:

Zhangsan renwei wo zhidao Wangwu xihuan ziji
Zhangsan think I know Wangwu like REFL
"Zhangsani thinks Ij know Wangwuk likes self*i/*j/k"

In Igbo, in complements of communication, entities that are coreferential with the source of information are marked by what is known as "logophoric pronouns":

ọ́ sị̀rị̀ nà ọ́ byàrà
he said that he came
"hei said that hej came"

ọ́ sị̀rị̀ nà yá byàrà
he said that LOG came
"hei said that hei came"

Gokana also has such a system, though the marking is on the verb, though the constraints on what can be coreferential are quite free:

aè kɔ aè dɔ
he said he fell
"hei said that hej fell"

aè kɔ aè dɔ-ɛ
he said he fell-LOG
"hei said that hei fell"

aè kɔ oò div-èè e
he said you hit-LOG him
"hei said that you hit himi

aè kɔ oò ziv-èè a gĩ́ã́
he said you stole-LOG his yams
"hei said that you stole hisi yams"

The wikipedia article on logophoricity goes into more depth.

It is also possible to have two different reflexives, requiring respectively local and non-local antecedents. Danish has a rather limited case of this in bare complements to perception verbs, where the two reflexives sig and sig selv which are usually either only different in level of emphasis or in complementary distribution, respectively require non-local and local antecedents:

Holger hørte Peter tale om sig.
"Holgeri heard Peterj talking about himi."

Holger hørte Peter tale om sig selv.
"Holgeri heard Peterj talking about himselfj."

Holger hørte Peter tale om ham.
"Holgeri heard Peterj talking about himk."

"4th Person systems" such as seen Eskimo languages are rather similar, though more general as they are used in all subordinate clauses are also another type of reflexive-like construction (the "fourth" person is often labeled 3R) and they are also used intraclausally in possessive marking. In all of these cases they mark that a participant or possessor is coreferential with the subject of the main clause (which is defined in terms of S/A despite the case marking being ergative). An example from Siberian Yupik:

esghaghyagu quyaaq
see:CNSQ:3s>3s happy:IND.3s
"when hei saw himj, hek was happy"

esghaghyamigu quyaaq
see:CNSQ:3Rs>3s happy:IND.3s
"when hei saw himj, hei was happy"

esghaghyatni quyaaq
see:CNSQ:3s>3Rs happy:IND.3s
"when hei saw himj, hej was happy"

In addition to all these various reflexive constructions, switch reference, the overt marking of whether the "subject" is either the same or different, either between two coordinate clauses, or a subordinate and main clause can also resolve some ambiguity. Take for example this pair of sentences from Hua:

ebgi-Ø-na korihie
hit-SAME-3sg.ANTICSU ran.away.3sg
"hei hit himj and hei ran away"

ebgi-ga-na korihie
hit-3sg.DIFF-3sg.ANTICSU ran.away.3sg
"hei hit himj and hej ran away"

Switch reference can only deal with one set of coreference though what exactly is tracked varies. In some languages, it is specifically the actor that is tracked, while others may track the topic or some other pragmatically prominent NP, or may even differ in what is tracked in the controlling clause as opposed to the clause recieving the marking. Additionally the marking may occasionally also be sensitive to changes in things like time, place, discourse coherency and/or reality status, and as a result, switch reference may fulfill may other roles than simply dealing with ambiguity. This paper, particularly chapters 5 and 6, goes into quite a bit of detail about the highly varied and interesting usage of switch-ref in Papua New Guinean languages.

In addition to Adarain’s answer, the ambiguity can also be resolved in an out-of-the-box way. For example, English can use the former or the latter in place of an inflected form of he to distinguish between the two cases. Languages like German go a step further and would just use this instead of the latter in most cases. These words do not replace pronouns, they just complement them. This gives the nice feature of preserving a possible ambiguity where it is intended for poetic or dramatic purposes while removing it entirely where clarity is desired.

Another out-of-the-box way is to restrict the way in which such constructions can be constructed. Trying to think of how German handles the situation I realised that the sentence translated directly is unambiguous in German:

Adam hat James seinen Aufsatz geschickt, um ihm beim Schreiben zu helfen.

The only way this can be interpreted is Adam helping James just by the way the grammar works. Adam is the sentence’s subject and the infinitive construction can only be tied to the subject. If you wanted James helping Adam, you need to work around by using a subordinate clause:

Adam hat James seinen Aufsatz geschickt, damit er ihm beim schreiben hilft.

For a conlang, it seems like one other way to avoid ambiguity that I do not see noted in previous answers is to have the language enforce grammatical rules such that a pronoun must always refer to a specific type of referent. That is, consider these four possible types of grammar rules (they may be other rules a language may follow):

  1. A pronoun always refers to the last referent, any mention of a prior referent must be renamed. So in your example, the grammar would remove the ambiguity as such a rule would refer to James in your original example:

Adam sent the essay to James to help him with his writing

And if Adam was the intent, then it would need to be one of these:

Adam sent the essay to James to help Adam with his writing

or

To James, Adam sent the essay to help him with his writing

  1. A pronoun always refers to the far referent when two referents are in view, and is left off when the near referent is intended. So of James getting help, no pronoun is used, and the sentence would roughly translate simply as:

Adam sent the essay to James to help with writing

But of Adam, the pronoun would be used:

Adam sent the essay to James to help him with his writing

  1. A pronoun always refers back to a subject, never an object (which must be restated if intended). So of James:

Adam sent the essay to James to help James with James's writing

Though I suspect something like #2 for James might be stated as well; or the language would form such a statement to place the main player in the subject position in a passive construction:

James was sent an essay by Adam to help him with his writing

For Adam, it would be as you originally stated:

Adam sent the essay to James to help him with his writing

  1. A pronoun always refers back to an object, never the subject (which is restated if intended). So of James it is as you already had:

Adam sent the essay to James to help him with his writing

But for Adam, it might be this:

Adam sent the essay to James to help Adam with his writing

Notice in that previous example by restating "Adam" as the object of "to help," it then put Adam in the most recent object position and allows for the "his" to then refer to Adam (who was also the subject).

So for some of these grammatical ways of reducing ambiguity, the sentence structure in the language becomes more important (which may or may not be desirable in the language one is constructing).

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