Students of Romance languages often experience difficulties with pronouns, which are those common, two-letter words that seem to hold three or four different meanings depending on context. According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a pronoun is “any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases”. This definition reveals that pronouns, while seemingly complicated, are actually quite useful in everyday conversation because they allow us to substitute a small word for much larger ones. For example, I could tell you about all the uses for electricity. I could say, “electricity is a great invention. I use electricity to power my computer. I use electricity to heat my home. I use electricity to power the lights in my house,” but the repeated use of the word “electricity” becomes redundant as the reader or listener already understands that I am referring to electricity. Instead, I could use a pronoun, which is shorter and easier to pronounce, to replace the word electricity” while still maintaining the same meaning. In short, pronouns make our language much more user-friendly.
Pronouns in the Romance languages serve the same function as in English; they make speaking easier. In Italian, for example, I can say mangio la pizza (‘I eat the pizza’), and once it has been established that “pizza” is what I’m referencing, then I can substitute the word la in for “pizza”, as in la mangio (‘I eat it’). The pronoun la belongs to a certain set of pronouns that replace the direct object of a sentence. In English, we only have two of these: the singular ‘it’ and the plural ‘them.’ In Italian, as well as Spanish and the majority of other Romance languages, there are four which refer not only to number, but also to gender. However, there are also other sets worth noting. For example, there exist pronouns which replace indirect objects rather than direct objects. There is also a set of pronouns that, as explained in the definition above, refers to noun phrases.
In Italian, there are two pronouns in particular that native English speakers typically struggle with: ci and ne. Unlike direct or indirect object pronouns, these pronouns do not have equivalents in English—a fact that often causes confusion. Their meanings, though, are not so complicated when broken down. Ci, when used as a substitute pronoun, refers to a place. This word can also replace a phrase beginning with the preposition a. For example, when planning a trip to Rome, one may say Ci voglio and are (‘I want to go there’). In this case, ci is referring to Rome, but like in the pizza example from earlier, the noun being replaced must be referenced first. Ci is more widely used by students in the phrases ‘there is’ and ‘there are’: c’è and ci sono. This pronoun also appears in French, although with an entirely different spelling: the single letter y. Thus, the French translation of ‘there is’ and ‘there are’ is represented as il y a. This is related to the Spanish version of the same phrase: hay. Centuries ago, Spanish in its antiquated form still had these pronouns, unlike Spanish today. Before hay meant ‘there is’ and ‘there are’, it was actually y ha (‘there has’), which looks a lot like the modern French, as well as the modern Catalan hi ha. Over time, though, things got muddled, and before we knew it, y ha had changed to hay. Most native speakers of Spanish, unless they know a lot about historical linguistics, probably do not even recognise this fossilised pronoun from days long gone.
The Italian pronoun ne is certainly a more challenging concept to grasp. This word replaces phrases beginning with the preposition “of,” or di in Italian. It also has to do with numbers. For example, if asked how many siblings one has (Quanti fratelli hai?), one might respond by saying Ne ho due. Here, ne literally means ‘of them’, so the phrase directly translates as ‘of them I have two’. Ne, as stated previously, also can replace any phrase beginning with di. This comes in handy particularly with necessities, as Italian does not have an active verb meaning ‘to need’. Instead, one says, “I have need of.” Thus, when asked if he or she needs to go to school (Hai bisogno di andare a scuola?), an individual might respond with No, non ne ho bisogno (‘no, of that I have no need’). It should be noted that like ci, ne exists in Italian, French, and Catalan—but not in Spanish.
The question remains regarding the historical context of these pronouns. In fact, there exist two theories regarding the pronoun ci. The first theory has to do with a Latin phrase, ecce hic, meaning ‘behold here’. As Latin slowly began to morph into the modern Romance language family, the pronunciation of hic perhaps developed into ci in Italian. Keeping in mind that sound changes happen verbally and unintentionally, one can see through the spelling of this pronoun in Latin and now Italian how the change might have occurred. The last two letters of the word, “ih,” were shoved behind the “c” to form cih. As the pronunciation of Italian continued to develop, the orthography—or spelling—changed to fit the pronunciation. Thus, the “h” became unnecessary and was dropped to form ci.”
The second theory pertaining to the origins of ci comes from another Latin phrase, ibidem, which can be translated as ‘there, indeed’. Of course, people speaking Classical Latin would have pronounced the entire phrase, but over time, as with ecce hic, the pronunciation was changed. The last syllable of the phrase was dropped, leaving ibi. Regarding a word as common as ‘there’, certainly one syllable would have been easier to pronounce than two; thus, speakers shortened ibi to bi. As this pronoun developed from Latin into the Romance languages, it underwent several changes resulting in what we see today: the Italian ci, the French y, the Catalan hi, and so on. Unfortunately, as the origins of this pronoun are somewhat shrouded in mystery, one cannot determine with certainty from which Latin phrase ci is derived.
The origins of ne are also most likely Latin, but little information is available about this particular pronoun. However, one can theorise about why both ne and ci and their equivalents exist in Catalan, French, and Italian but are absent in Spanish. Over time, if some aspect of a language becomes unnecessary, it tends to fall out of use. In the example of the Spanish word hay, we discussed how the “y” was much like the French pronoun y: they both meant ‘there’. In Spanish, though, the pronoun became stuck to the verb, forming hay. With this pronoun married to a verb, it was no longer free-floating—the new verbal form hay replacing its usage as a single pronoun. Italian and the other languages that still use these pronouns did not have any situation arise in which they could have fallen out of usage. On the contrary, they remain incredibly useful in everyday conversation.