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Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are the most heterogeneous group of pronouns. They can refer to persons, things or masses. These elements are pronouns because they appear at positions in the sentence in which nouns can occur. The term indefinite captures their way of referring to an unspecified or unknown referent, or a vague number of referents. The term usually covers words such as elts / elk(enien) each, every-one, ien somebody, anybody, immen one, nimmen none, and neat nothing, eat / wat something.

Frisian indefinite pronouns are more interesting semantically and syntactically than morphologically as they are formally invariant, with the exception of elts(e) or its variant elk(e) which agree in gender with the noun they belong to (as can be seen in the example in (1)):

a. elts-e / elk-e man
each-C man(C)
each man
b. elts/elk bern
each.N child(N)
each child

Another exception is men one, which has jin as object form:

Men moat net alles leauwe, wat se jin fertelle
one must not everything believe what they one tell
You should not believe everything that they tell you

Men one, you can be categorized as an impersonal pronoun: pronouns having arbitrary reference, with arbitrariness minimally including the semantic features 'human' and 'plural'. The personal pronouns (do you, jo you, it it, wy we, jimme you (pl.) and hja/se they) can also be used impersonally.

Impersonals have been shown to be definite (but non-specific). Nevertheless, following the tradition, they are dealt with under the heading of indefinite pronouns. A comparable question is what counts as a pronoun. Again following the tradition, some attention is given here to what might be considered as indefinite adverbials, as earne somewhere or nea never. There is still another overlap, viz. with (indefinite) quantifiers.

[+]Indefinite pronouns as a category

The category of indefinite pronouns borders on the indefinite adverbials such as earne somewhere, nearne nowhere, ea ever and nea never on the one hand and the indefinite numerals such as guon some or ider(e) each, any, every on the other. Grammars differ in what is included in the term indefinite pronoun. However, there is not much disagreement about the following set:

Table 1
Indefinite pronoun Translation
alles everything
dizze en/of jinge this one and/or that one
eat / wat something
elts(enien) / elk(enien) each one, every-one
gjinien nobody
guon some
ien somebody
immen someone
men one
neat nothing
nimmen nobody
sokssawat something like that

Some individual indefinite pronouns will be Commonted on below, with the exception of men one.

  • When al(le) all is used attributively, it is counted as a quantifier (see (a)), but when it is used otherwise, it is conceived of as an indefinite pronoun (see (b)):
    a. Hy komt alle dagen
    he comes all days
    He comes every day
    b. Al wat er die, mislearre
    all what he did failed
    Everything he did failed
  • Eat something mainly occurs in written language, in spoken language wat something is used. Wat something does not neccesarily refer to an earlier-mentioned referent (see sentence (5a)), but it may also be used anaphorically (see (5b)) (see Hoekstra (1987)):
    a. Sjoch, der leit wat yn 'e sleat
    see, there lays something in the ditch
    Look, there is something in the ditch
    b. Wolst ek noch kofje? Ja, jou my noch mar wat
    will.you also still coffee? yes, give me still but something
    Do you want to have a cup of coffee? Yes please
    However, in the latter case wat could be better considered an indefinite quantifier.

    Instead of eat and wat, the wordgroup in ding a thing something can also be used (see Hoekstra (1989)):

    Dat is in ding dat tige ús omtinken fertsjinnet
    that is a thing that very our attention deserves
    That is something that seriously deserves our attention
    In ding can also be combined with an adjective, for example goed good:
    It soe in goed ding wêze
    it would a good thing be
    That would be a good thing
  • The forms elts, eltsenien each are variations of the forms elk, elkenien each, as a result of historical palatalization of /k/. For more details about these forms, see Hoekstra (1987) and quantifiers. There is also the distributive form elkmes, as in
    Se krigen elkmes in priis
    they got each a price
    Each of them got a prize
  • Guon some has a large number of additional (sometimes dialectical) variants. A few examples of them are: guont, guons, guonts, guonnen, guonnent (Hoekstra (1987)). In Frisian, one may use guon without any introduction in sentences like the one in (8); it can only be interpreted then as more than one person:
    Op in jûn hearde er guon by de doar
    at a night heard he some at the door
    At one night, he heard some people at the door
    In Dutch, however, this is impossible with the counterpart sommige:
    *Op een avond hoorde hij sommigen bij de deur
    at a night heard he some at the door
    At one night, he heard some people at the door

    The Dutch equivalents sommige(n), enkele(n), enige(n) have to refer to an earlier mentioned referent:

    Van de mensen uit het koor, hoorde hij op een avond sommigen bij de deur
    of the people from the choir, heard he on a night some at the door
    Of the people from the choir, he heard some of them at the door one night
  • The phrase ien of oar one or the other is used as a prenominal modifier indicating the indefiniteness of the Noun Phrase (NP) (De Haan (2001:178)): de ien of oare gek some crazy person, it ien of oare ferhaal some story. The article de / it the / it in these phrases does not convey definiteness; its gender is determined by the nominal head.
  • Immen somebody and its negative counterpart nimmen nobody are mainly restricted to written language. They are replaced by ien and negative gjinien or net ien.
  • Neat nothing has a stronger position in spoken language than eat, but is nevertheless often replaced by Dutch niks nothing.
  • The use of wa who as an indefinite pronoun is not so frequent; it is only used in sentences like (11):
    Is der wa?
    is there who
    Is there someone?
    Der wie wa by de doar
    there was who at the door
    There was someone at the door
    It occurs attributively in exclamative sentences like
    Wa minske docht soks!
    who human.being does such.a.thing
    Who on earth does something like that!
    Instead of wa, one mostly encounters the much more common indefinite pronoun ien.
  • Some pronouns have genitive forms. A restriction is that they should refer to people:
    a. elks belang everybody's interest
    b. elkeniens flater everybody's fault
    c. immens bern someone's children
    d. nimmens skuld nobody's fault


In a sentence like

Ik sil it har by de earste de bêste gelegenheid freegje
I will it her at the first the best occasion ask
I will ask her at the first opportunity

the phrase de earste de bêste the very first can be interpreted as an indefinite pronoun (Hoekstra (1989)). Instead of the indefinite article de, the definite article it can also be used in this expression; it earste it bêste the very first. The expression can also occur independently (without a noun):

Ik hoech net it earste it bêste
I need not the first the best
I do not want to take just anything
[+]Indefinite adverbials and quantifiers

Indefinite adverbials, which are sometimes included among the indefinite pronouns, refer to places: earne somewhere, nearne nowhere, or time: ea ever, nea never:

Ik ha noch nea yn Amearika west
I have still never in America been
I have never been in America
Hy moat earne hinne
he must somewhere to
He must go somewhere

Earne and nearne are mainly used in written language. In spoken language they are replaced by the Dutch loans words ergens and nergens.


Some in-depth studies have been carried out on the history of ea ever and nea never, especially with respect to semantics and historical development. See Hoekstra (2012), Slofstra (2011) and Hoekstra and Slofstra (2013).

There is also an overlap of words that can be seen as quantifiers as well as indefinite pronouns, like the ones in (17):

a. elk / elts every, any
b. alle all
c. allegear all of them
d. inkelde a few
e. ytlike several
f. gâns many
g. genôch enough
h. mannich many
i. guon some
j. wat a few

When one of these words is used attributively, it is usually categorized as a quantifier (see (18a)), otherwise it can be interpreted as a pronoun (see (18b)):

a. Guon dielnimmers sille it nea helje
some participants will it never make
Some participants will never make it
b. Guon sille it nea helje
some will it never make
Some will never make it

Some indefinites can also occur predicatively, or in other words, as floating quantifiers. That means that the indefinite pronoun is not adjacent to the NP it quantifies. The position in which it stands is not necessarily fixed but is variable:

a. Se krigen elk in priis
they got each a price
They each got a price
b. Se krigen allegear in tút
they got all a kiss
They all got a kiss

Restrictions on floating quantifiers

Not all indefinite pronouns can be used as a floating quantifier, see the topics persons and things and quantifiers without agreement in the part on Frisian syntax. Al(le) never occurs as a floating quantifier either. Instead the form allegear is used (see al + definite article and persons and things in the Frisian syntax part).

Finally, it should be noticed that there are multi-word expressions that fulfill the same function as indefinite pronouns. For example, Frisian lacks a specific word for somehow and what-/who-/whichever. Both uses can be expressed by multi-word expressions: op de ien of oare wize in one way or another and wat / wa / hokker ... ek mar who-ever / whatever / whichever. Alternatives for the latter are al wa who-ever / al wat what-ever, or likefolle wa who-ever / likefolle wat what-ever. That such expressions tend to be interpreted as one word can be detected from spellings like lykfolwa who-ever. Examples are provided in (20):

a. Wa't der ek mar kaam
who.if there also but came
Whoever came there
b. De operaasje holp better as hokker medisyn ek mar
the operation helped better as which medicin also but
The operation helped better than any medicine

In Frisian the wordgroup elk foar oar is mostly used as an indefinite pronoun (21a) and (21b), but sometimes it can also be used as an indefinite quantifier (21c) and (21d) (see: Hoekstra (1987)) and the topic on quantifiers.

a. Elk foar oar wol de earste wêze
each for other will the first be
One by one, they all want to be the first
b. Elk foar oar brocht syn stim út
each for other brought his vote out
One by one, they all voted
c. Hja wisten elk foar oar wol in sterk stik oer him te fertellen
they knew each for other well a strong piece about him to tell
One by one, they all managed a tall story to tell about him
d. Elk foar oar wiene de partijen wakkere wiis mei de nije boargemaster
each for other were the parties very glad with the new mayor
One by one, all of the parties were all very pleased with the new mayor

As can be seen from the examples in (21), elk foar oar does not mean exactly the same as elkenien. Elkenien covers the group of persons referred to as a whole, while elk foar oar refers to each individual in that group. In contrast to elkenien, elk foar oar can only occur in subject position, as is shown in (22):

Jan hatet elkenien
Jan hates every-one
Jan hates every-one
*Jan hatet elk foar oar
Jan hates each for other
*Jan hates one by one
[+]Impersonal pronouns

In most Frisian grammars impersonal pronouns are treated as indefinite pronouns. According to Hoekstra (2010), however, impersonal pronouns are definite, because they denote the whole ensemble of persons, but they are non-specific because they leave the actual persons belonging to this set unspecified. The attribute "impersonal" expresses that these pronouns refer to no person in particular; it clearly does not mean that they have no personal reference. Very often impersonal pronouns derive from personal pronouns (subject forms). The personal pronouns do you, jo you, it it, wy we, jimme you (pl.) and se they may be used as impersonal pronouns. These pronouns are therefore normally ambiguous between a personal and an impersonal reading. Impersonal pronouns distinguish between inclusive (i.e. including the speaker, e.g. men one) and exclusive (i.e. excluding the speaker), as for example se they. They are always semantically plural. Some details about the various impersonal pronouns are listed below.

  • The sentence in (23) gives an example of an indefinite reading of do:
    Do kinst poerbêst ite yn dat restaurant
    you can very.well eat in that restaurant
    The food in that restaurant is very good
    Frisian shows pro-drop with the second person singular pronoun do (more details in the topic on second person agreement and premodification). In the relevant contexts, i.e., after the finite verb (24a) or the complementizer (24b), only an alleged pro can get the impersonal reading:
    a. Yn sa'n auto riidst hurd
    in such.a car drive pro fast
    You drive fast in such a car
    b. ... datst hurd riidst yn sa'n auto
    ... that pro fast drive in such.a car
    You drive fast in such a car
    The subject can also be zero in clause-initial position before the finite verb, as is shown in (25):
    (Do) Riidst hurd yn sa'n auto
    (you) drive fast in such.a car
    You drive fast in such a car
  • The sentence in (26) gives an example of an indefinite reading of jo:
    Jo meie tsjintwurdich net hurder as hûndert kilometer ride
    you may present-day not faster than onehundred kilometres drive
    One may not drive faster than onehundred kilometres these days

    Jo can be reduced to je [jə] (Tamminga (1985)), as in this reflexive example:

    Je moatte je net fersinne
    you must you not mistake
    You must not make a mistake
    Impersonal jo can be stressed and then means people like us (you and me) with a prominent 1st person singular reading, as in (28):
    In oar hat altyd mear as JO!
    an other has always more than you
    Someone else always has more than me!
  • It can have different meanings Hoekstra (1990). For example it can refer to a group of people including the speaker but the speaker need not have been there at all. Thus in the example in (29) it is possible that the speaker went to Gasterlân, but it could also be that he did not. Besides that, it can also refer to one person. In that case it can be put on a par with ik I or hy he.

    Doe gie it mei de bus nei Gasterlân ta
    then went it with the bus to Gasterlân to
    Then, they/we/I went to Gasterlân on the bus
  • Somewhat marginally the first person plural pronoun wy can be used as an inclusive impersonal pronoun in Frisian as well. It occurs for example in sentences with existential have:
    At wy in moaie simmer ha, draacht de prommebeam altiten omraak
    when we a nice summer have, bears the plumtree always enormously
    When the summer is nice, the plum tree always bears lots of fruit
  • Se may function as an impersonal pronoun with a strictly exclusive reading:
    Yn Ruslân drinke se sleatfollen wodka
    in Russia drink they ditchfuls vodka
    In Russia they drink large quantities of vodka
[+]The impersonal pronoun men one, you

Compared to its counterparts in the neighbouring languages, the pronoun men has remarkable features, like obligatory inclusiveness, first person singular reading and its ability to bear stress. It can be categorized as an impersonal pronoun, i.e. a pronoun having arbitrary reference, with arbitrariness at least including the semantic features 'human' and 'plural'. Men differs from the other impersonal pronouns in that it can have a first person singular reading.

Krol (1985) makes a distinction between an including and an excluding use of men. According to him, in the majority of cases men is used as an indefinite personal pronoun which includes the speaker, hence it is defined as an including indefinite personal pronoun:

Men moat altyd it smoarge wurk dwaan
one must always it dirty job do
I (one) always have/has to do the dirty work

If on the other hand men refers to people in general, and if it becomes clear from the context that the speaker cannot be counted among the people to whom men refers, men is defined as an excluding indefinite personal pronoun:

Men rydt yn Amearika yn grutte auto's
one drives in America in big cars
They drive big cars in America

In Old Frisian, ma one, you is used as an excluding indefinite pronoun. This use is continued in Middle and Modern Frisian, where men regularly refers to people in general, with the exclusion of the speaker. However, later on the use of men in which the speaker is included prevails

Hoekstra (2010) argues that, in contrast to Dutch, Frisian men is obligatorily inclusive: it always includes a speaker and an addressee. Thus, he does not agree with the distinction between an including and an excluding use of men as Krol (1985) does. This means that men is fine in statements intended to have general validity as in (34a), but ungrammatical in utterances which clearly do not involve the speaker, as in (34b). To make sentences like (b) grammatical, men should be replaced by an impersonal pronoun like se they (34c):

a. Men moat it izer smeie, at it hyt is
one shall the iron forge while it hot is
Strike while the iron is hot
b. *Men seit dat smoken net sûn is
one says that smoking not healthy is
They say that smoking is unhealthy
c. Se sizze dat smoken net sûn is
they say that smoking not healthy is
They say that smoking is unhealthy

As we have seen, the older literature also gives the option of an exclusive men. According to Hoekstra (2010) this is without any doubt partly due to Dutch interference. Some of them might also show, however, that the obligatory inclusiveness of men is a relatively recent development in Frisian. Pragmatically, this use of men might represent a speaker's strategy not to speak about him/herself directly.

The first person singular reading comes to the fore even more strongly when men is stressed. It is a striking feature of Frisian men, unlike its Dutch counterpart, that it can bear stress. Stressed men denotes something like people like us, but due to its first person reading is often translated most naturally by people like me or simply by I. Stressed men is mainly used in expressions of discontent and self-pity:

a. 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!
b. MEN moat altyd de smoarge putsjes dwaan!
one must always the dirty jobs do
I always have to do the dirty jobs!

Frisian men has a correlate object form jin

Men moat net alles leauwe, wat se jin fertelle
one must not everything believe what they one tell
One should not believe everything they tell one

Furthermore, it has a possessive form jins (elliptically jinnes), both historically derived through breaking from ien one:

Men moat jin oan jins wurd hâlde
one must you to your word keep
You must keep your word
Wat men fynt, is jinnes
what one finds, is yours
Wat you find is yours

The object form always includes the speaker (see also the topic on possessive pronouns). When jin, jins and jinnes are stressed, they have the meaning people like us:

Hy moat JIN altyd ha!
he must one always have
He always picks on me!
De protters skite altyd op JINS auto/JINNES!
the starlings shit always on one's care/one's
The starlings always shit on my car/mine!

The object form and the possessive form can also be used reflexively:

Men skammet jin bytiden foar jins âlden
one shames one sometimes for one's parents
One is ashamed of one's parents sometimes

An in-depth study of the pronoun men one, as well as other phenomena in the realm of impersonal pronouns is Hoekstra (2010). Krol (1985) focuses on semantic aspects of men, and moreover gives a wealth of data from a linguistic corpus.

  • Haan, Germen J. de2001Grammar of Modern West-FrisianUniversity of Groningen
  • Hoekstra, Eric & Slofstra, Bouke2013A diachronic study of the engative polarity item SYN LEVEN 'his life'> 'ever' in West Frisian between 1550 and 1800
  • Hoekstra, Eric, Slofstra, Slofstra & Versloot, Arjen P2012Changes in the use of the Frisian quantifiers EA/OAIT 'ever' between 1250 and 1800Ans van Kemenade & Haas, Nynke de (eds.)Historical Linguistics 2009. Selected papers from the 19th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, 10-14 August 2009Current Issues in Linguistic Theory171-189
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1987Guon, ien, wat, waFriesch Dagblad11-04Taalsnipels 28
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1987elk, elkenien, elkmisFriesch Dagblad08-08Taalsnipels 45
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1987Guon, ien, wat, waFriesch Dagblad11-04Taalsnipels 28
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1987Elk foar oarFriesch Dagblad09-05Taalsnipels 32
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989Dwaan is in dingFriesch Dagblad14-10Taalsnipels 124
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1989Earste de bêsteFriesch Dagblad02-09Taalsnipels 120
  • Hoekstra, Jarich1990It sit alFriesch Dagblad19-05Taalsnipels 146
  • Hoekstra, Jarich2010On the impersonal pronoun men in Modern West FrisianThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics1331-59
  • Hoekstra, Jarich2010On the impersonal pronoun men in Modern West FrisianThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics1331-59
  • Hoekstra, Jarich2010On the impersonal pronoun men in Modern West FrisianThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics1331-59
  • Hoekstra, Jarich2010On the impersonal pronoun men in Modern West FrisianThe Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics1331-59
  • Krol, Jelle1985It pronomen men yn it skreaune Frysk oant 1950Us Wurk34 (1-2)1-31
  • Krol, Jelle1985It pronomen men yn it skreaune Frysk oant 1950Us Wurk34 (1-2)1-31
  • Krol, Jelle1985It pronomen men yn it skreaune Frysk oant 1950Us Wurk34 (1-2)1-31
  • Slofstra, Bouke2011De dea fan ea en neaUs wurk: meidielingen fan it Frysk Ynstitút oan de Ryksuniversiteit yn Grins601-43
  • Tamminga, Douwe Annes1985Is 'do' as ûnbepaald foarnamwurd yn opmars?De Pompeblêden229
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