Definitions

Demonstrative

Demonstrative

[duh-mon-struh-tiv]
Demonstratives are deictic words (they depend on an external frame of reference) that indicate which entities a speaker refers to, and distinguishes those entities from others. Demonstratives are usually employed for spatial deixis (using the context of the physical surroundings), but in many languages they double as discourse deictics, referring not to concrete objects but to words, phrases and propositions mentioned in speech.

The demonstratives in English are this, that, these, and those, possibly followed by one(s) in case of pronouns, as explained below.

Distal and proximal demonstratives

Many languages, including English, make a two-way distinction between demonstratives. Typically, one set of demonstratives is proximal, indicating objects close to the speaker (English this), and the other series is distal, indicating objects removed from the speaker (English that).

Other languages, like Spanish and Georgian, make a three-way distinction. Typically there is a distinction between proximal (objects near to the speaker), medial (objects near to the addressee), and distal (objects far from both). So for example, in Spanish:

Esta manzana
"this apple"
Esa manzana
"that apple (near you)"
Aquella manzana
"that apple (over there, away from both of us)"

and, in Georgian:

amisi mama
"this one's father"
imisi coli
"that one's wife"
magisi saxli
"that (by you) one's house"

Portuguese, Japanese, Tamil and Seri also make this distinction (although in Portuguese, especially in Brazil, the three are currently being reduced to two), but German and French, like English, do not. English, however, once had the three-way distinction of this, that, and yonder.

Arabic makes the same two-way distinction as English. For example هذه البنت 'this girl' versus تلك البنت 'that girl'.

In Modern German (and the Scandinavian languages), the pronoun is distance-neutral, but the deictic value may be defined more precisely by means of adverbs:

dieses Mädchen (hier) ~ dieses Mädchen (dort)
"this/that girl"

There are languages which make a four-way distinction, such as Northern Sami:

Dát biila
"this car"
Diet biila
"that car (near you)"
Duot biila
"that car (over there, away from both of us but rather near)"
Dot biila
"that car (over there, far away)"
These four-way distinctions are often termed proximal, mesioproximal, mesiodistal, and distal.

Many non-European languages make further distinctions; for example, whether the object referred to is uphill or downhill from the speaker, whether the object is visible or not, and whether the object can be pointed at as a whole or only in part. The Inuit language Inuktitut and the Yupik languages are particularly well known for their many contrasts.

The demonstratives in Seri are compound forms based on the definite articles (themselves derived from verbs) and therefore incorporate the positional information of the articles (standing, sitting, lying, coming, going) in addition to the three-way spatial distinction. This results in a quite elaborated set of demonstratives.

Demonstrative series in other languages

Latin had several sets of demonstratives, including hic, haec, hoc; ille, illa, illud; and iste, ista, istud (note that Latin has not only number, but also three grammatical genders). The second set of Latin demonstratives (ille, etc., meaning that), developed into the definite articles in most Romance languages, such as el, la, los, las in Spanish, and le, la, les in French.

Although, with the exception of Romanian, the neuter gender has been lost in the Romance languages, Spanish and Portuguese still have neuter demonstratives, in Spanish éste (masculine), ésta (feminine), esto (neuter). Neuter demonstratives refer to ideas of indeterminate gender, such as abstractions and groups of heterogeneous objects.

Classical Chinese had three main demonstrative pronouns: proximal 此 (this), distal 彼 (that), and distance-neutral 是 (this or that). The frequent use of 是 as a resumptive demonstrative pronoun that reasserted the subject before a noun predicate caused it to develop into its colloquial use as a copula by the Han period and subsequently its standard use as a copula in modern Chinese. Modern Chinese has only two main demonstratives, proximal 這 and distal 那; its use of the three Classical Chinese demonstratives has become mostly idiomatic, although 此 continues to be used with some frequency in written Mandarin.

Demonstrative determiners and pronouns

It is relatively common for a language to distinguish between demonstrative determiners (or demonstrative adjectives, determinative demonstratives) and demonstrative pronouns (or independent demonstratives).

A demonstrative determiner modifies a noun:

This apple is good.
I like those houses.

A demonstrative pronoun stands on its own, replacing rather than modifying a noun:

This is good.
I like those.

There are five demonstrative pronouns in English; this, that, these, those and the less common yonder (the latter is usually employed as a demonstrative determiner; even so it is rarely used in common English).

As is obvious from the examples, English employs the same words for both types of demonstratives. Sometimes a difference is made specific by using the pronoun one (this one, those ones).

This is not the case in many other languages.

In Spanish the difference is less marked; except for the series of singular neuter independent pronouns (esto, eso, aquello), the rest of the demonstrative pronouns are identical to the corresponding determiners (except in writing, where a diacritic may be used to mark the pronouns).

Discourse deixis

As mentioned above, while the primary function of demonstratives is to provide spatial references of concrete objects (that building, this table), there is a secondary function: referring to items of discourse. For example:

This sentence is short.
I said her dress looked hideous. She didn't like that.

In the above, this sentence refers to the sentence being spoken, and that refers to the content of the previous statement. These are abstract entities of discourse, not concrete objects. Each language may have subtly different rules on how to use demonstratives to refer to things previously spoken, currently being spoken, or about to be spoken.

See also

References

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