Personal Pronoun

The Tuvaluan language and many other Polynesian languages have three significant features in the personal pronouns. One is the concept of “dual form.” Dual form only refers to two people in a conversation, while plural refers to three or more people. The Tuvaluan personal pronouns have three concepts to refer to the number of persons in the conversation. For instance, the third person forms go as following: ia (he/she), lāua (they and them two), and lātou (they and them all [3 or more]).

The second feature is the inclusive/exclusive points of view. Tuvaluan splits its pronouns by whether or not it includes the person or people being spoken to. For instance, tāua refers to we, you, and I, and māua refers to we, me, and him/her, not you.

The last feature is alienable (a class)/unalienable (o class) points of view in the possessive pronouns. According to Besnier (2000), whether an object is designated as alienable or unalienable is determined as the following.

Alienable possession (a class):
  • most material belongings, objects, attributes that can be acquired or lost (including food, drink, animals kept or hunted for food, and the enclosures in which animals are kept)
  • objects and attributes that depend directly on the possessor for their existence or well-being, physical actions and movements, and verbal acts (including the languages one speaks)
  • taku tusi = my book
    tau ika = your fish
Inalienable possession (o class):
  • parts of a whole (e.g., body parts)
  • objects and attributes that are intimately bound to the possessor and on which the possessor depends for its existence or well-being (e.g., one’s health and one’s origin)
  • immutable objects that are normally acquired through inheritance (e.g., dwellings, landholding units, gardens, and wells)
  • objects that are worn as clothing or adornment (including flower crowns and perfumes)
  • objects that are employed in close contact to the body (e.g., bedding, mats, and bathing water)
  • emotions and sensations
  • toku fale = my house
    tou igoa = your name

The first- and second-person singular forms in the alienable possession form are taku and tau and in the unalienable form toku and tou, respectively.

Interestingly, in spite of the complicated rules we have seen above, there is no distinction of sex in the third person singular form, which English speakers would expect. He and she are both expressed in a single term ia.

A Dictionary of the Tuvaluan Language & Culture