Recently I rewatched the Harry Potter movies on a whim. Then, I also began relistening to the audiobooks to fill in the missing plots from the cinematographic portrayal. As I progressed to the Chamber of Secrets, however, I couldn’t help but notice for the nth time the unique way Dobby the house-elf speaks: he consistently avoids the first person singular pronoun “I” and uses his name “Dobby” instead when referring to himself. So, instead of “I am a free elf” he says “Dobby is a free elf.”

Interestingly, Dobby does use pronouns of other persons and numbers, like “you,” “he,” and even “us.” When he first showed up in Harry’s bedroom, for instance, he said (among other things):

‘So long has Dobby wanted to meet you, sir … Such an honour it is …’

‘Harry Potter must stay where he is safe. He is too great, too good, to lose. If Harry Potter goes back to Hogwarts, he will be in mortal danger.’

And when he told Harry about the Room of Requirement in the Order of the Phoenix, he said the following:

‘Dobby heard tell of it from the other house-elves when he came to Hogwarts, sir. It is known by us as the Come and Go Room, sir, or else as the Room of Requirement!’

I guess Dobby avoids using “I” as a way to show respect to wizards—as a “politeness strategy,” so to speak (I think the exact terminology is illeism)—house-elves have historically been treated by wizards (and by themselves) as servants after all. There are some interesting answers on this in this Quora thread.

Illeism (from Latin ille meaning “he, that”) is the act of referring to oneself in the third person instead of first person. (Wikipedia)

Pronoun-based politeness strategies are common in real-world languages too. For example, many languages around the world use the second or third person plural pronoun as an honorific “you.” This phenomenon is sometimes called the T-V distinction, with reference to the Latin pronouns tu “thou” and vos “y’all” (though the phenomenon is certainly not limited to Latin or Indo-European languages). Below are two basic examples from French and German.

(1) Comment allez-vous? [French]
“How are you?”

(2) Was möchten Sie? [German]
“What would you like to have?”

The phenomenon is not limited to fusional or synthetic languages either. For instance, Chinese also has such a “switched-person” pronoun nin2 (您), which is a phonological contraction of the second person plural ni3-men2 (你們). Thus, there are two versions for the everyday greeting “hello” in Mandarin: the more casual ni3 hao3 (你好) and the more respectful nin2 hao3 (您好). Which one to use depends on who you are talking to (e.g., a friend or a teacher).

Apart from honorific pronouns, some languages also have humble pronouns, which are used to show respect to others by way of deprecating oneself. Humble pronouns are sometimes treated as a subtype of honorific pronouns, but I personally think it is better to keep them separate, because the term “honorific” doesn’t sound like it intends to cover both the respectful and the humble ends of the social-hierarchical spectrum. An example of humble pronouns is the Korean first-person pronoun jeo (저), which is used instead of the default na (나) when one is speaking to someone elder or of superior social status:

(4) jeo-neun kim kyosunim-ui hakseng-imnida [Korean]
(저는 김 교수님의 학생입니다)
“I am Prof. Kim’s student.”

So, I reckon Dobby’s illeism is a politeness strategy. More specifically, I think illeism can be further broken down to two substrategies: (i) use of the third person, and (ii) avoidance of “I.” Substrategy (i) is similar to the above-mentioned T-V distinction, while (ii) is reminiscent of the deliberate avoidance of “you” in certain languages, again such as Korean, though Japanese is also quite typical in this respect.

(5) Two ways to say “What is your name?” in Japanese
a. (impolite) anata-no namae-wa? (あなたの名前は?)
“literally: your name is?”
b. (polite) o-namae-wa? (お名前は?)
“literally: name is?”

Illeism is evidently common among house-elves. In fact, it seems to be more than merely a politeness-based choice—it is probably already “fossilized” as a default in their grammar instead. For instance, in the Goblet of Fire Kreacher (the less popular house-elf serving the Black family) avoids using “I” even when talking to/about people he disrespects (e.g., Sirius Black in the following excerpts):

Kreacher did not see young master,’ he said, turning around and bowing to Fred. Still facing the carpet, he added, perfectly audibly, ‘Nasty little brat of a blood traitor it is.’

The above said, there is apparently some interspeaker variation among house-elves. Winky, for one, is totally comfortable with the first-person pronoun, even though her English grammar is pretty broken otherwise (see this, this, and this webpage if you are interested in this aspect of house-elf English). The following excerpts are from the Goblet of Fire:

‘But I knows Dobby too, sir! …My name is Winky, sir – and you, sir … you is surely Harry Potter!’

‘No, no, no. I says to Dobby, I says, go find yourself a nice family and settle down, Dobby. …You goes racketing around like this, Dobby, I says, and next thing I hear you’s up in front of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, like some common goblin.’

Also notice that when Dobby is around, Winky starts avoiding using “I” too:

Dobby: ‘Professor Dumbledore offered Dobby ten Galleons a week, and weekends off, …but Dobby beat him down, miss … Dobby likes freedom, miss, but he isn’t wanting too much, miss, he likes work better.’

Winky: ‘Winky is a disgraced elf, but Winky is not yet getting paid! …Winky is not sunk so low as that! Winky is properly ashamed of being freed!’

So maybe illeism is part of Winky’s grammar too, though she often deviates from it for some reason. It might have to do with her nervous breakdown and addiction to alcohol after being sacked by Barty Crouch Senior. It’s a shame that she didn’t get to appear in the movies at all; otherwise it’d be interesting to see and compare the different speech styles of all three house-elves as they are portrayed on screen. Lacking that, however, I think the audiobook rendering of the three house-elves’ voices is also quite vivid. Audiobooks are such a good invention! 🙏

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