Demonstratives (abbreviated DEM) are words, such as this and that, used to indicate which entities are being referred to and to distinguish those entities from others. They are typically deictic; their meaning depending on a particular frame of reference and cannot be understood without context. Demonstratives are often used in spatial deixis (where the speaker or sometimes the listener are to provide context), but also in intra-discourse reference (including abstract concepts) or anaphora, where the meaning is dependent on something other than the relative physical location of the speaker, for example whether something is currently being said or was said earlier.
Demonstrative constructions include demonstrative adjectives or demonstrative determiners, which qualify nouns (as in Put that coat on); and demonstrative pronouns, which stand independently (as in Put that on). The demonstratives in English are this, that, these, those, and the archaic yon and yonder, along with this one or that one as substitutes for the pronoun use of this or that.
Distal and proximal demonstratives
Many languages, such as English and Chinese, 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 further removed from the speaker (English that).
Other languages, like Nandi, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Armenian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Georgian, Basque, Korean, Japanese and Old English make a three-way distinction. Typically there is a distinction between proximal or first person (objects near to the speaker), medial or second person (objects near to the addressee), and distal or third person (objects far from both). So for example, in Portuguese:
- Esta maçã
- "this apple"
- Essa maçã
- "that apple (near you)"
- Aquela maçã
- "that apple (over there, away from both of us)"[note 1]
Further oppositions are created with place adverbs.
- Essa maçã aqui
- "this apple (next to me or next to you-and-me)"
- Essa maçã aí
- "that apple (next to you)"
- Aquela maçã ali
- "that apple (close to you-and-me)"
- Aquela maçã lá
- "that apple (which is far from you-and-me or is in another distant place from you-and-me)"
- Questa mela
- "this apple"
- Codesta mela
- "that apple (near you)"
- Quella mela
- "that apple (over there, away from both of us)"
in Armenian (based on the proximal "s", medial "d/t", and distal "n"):
- այս խնձորը
- ays khndzorë
- "this apple"
- այդ խնձորը
- ayd khndzorë
- "that apple (near you)"
- այն խնձորը
- ayn khndzorë
- "that apple (over there, away from both of us)"
and, in Georgian:
- ამისი მამა
- amisi mama
- "this one's father"
- იმისი ცოლი
- imisi coli
- "that one's wife"
- მაგისი სახლი
- magisi saxli
- "that (by you) one's house"
and, in Ukrainian (note that Ukrainian has not only number, but also three grammatical genders in singular):
- цей чоловік, ця жінка, це яблуко, ці яблука
- "this man", "this woman", "this apple", "these apples"
- той чоловік, та жінка, те яблуко, ті яблука
- "that man", "that woman", "that apple", "those apples"
- он той чоловік, он та жінка, он те яблуко, он ті яблука
- "that man (over there, away from both of us)", "that woman (over there, away from both of us)", "that apple (over there, away from both of us)", "those apples (over there, away from both of us)"
and, in Japanese:
- kono ringo
- "this apple"
- sono ringo
- "that apple"
- ano ringo
- "that apple (over there)"
In Nandi (Kalenjin of Kenya, Uganda and Eastern Congo):
Chego chu, Chego choo, Chego chuun
"this milk", "that milk" (near the second person) and "that milk" (away from the first and second person, near a third person or even further away).
Spanish, Tamil and Seri also make this distinction. French has a two-way distinction, with the use of postpositions "-ci" (proximal) and "-là" (distal) as in cet homme-ci and cet homme-là, as well as the pronouns ce and cela/ça. English has an archaic but occasionally used three-way distinction of this, that, and yonder.
Arabic has also a three-way distinction in its formal Classical and Modern Standard varieties. Very rich, with more than 70 variants, the demonstrative pronouns in Arabic principally change depending on the gender and the number. They mark a distinction in number for singular, dual, and plural. For example :
- هذا الرجل (haːðaː arrajul) 'this man'.
- ذاك الرجل (ðaːka arrajul) 'that man'.
- ذلك الرجل (ðaːlika arrajul) 'that man' (over there).
In Modern German (and the Scandinavian languages), the non-selective deictic das Kind, der Kleine, die Kleine and the selective one das Kind, der Kleine, die Kleine are homographs, but they are spoken differently. The non-selective deictics are unstressed whereas the selective ones (demonstratives) are stressed. There is a second selective deictic, namely dieses Kind, dieser Kleine, diese Kleine. Distance either from the speaker or from the addressee is either marked by the opposition between these two deictics or by the addition of a place deictic.
Distance-marking Thing Demonstrative
- dieses Mädchen ~ das Mädchen
- "this girl" ~ "that girl"
Thing Demonstrative plus Distance-marking Place Demonstrative
- das Mädchen hier ~ das Mädchen da
- dieses Mädchen hier ~ dieses Mädchen da
- "this girl here" ~ "that girl over there"
- jenes Mädchen
- "yonder 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 (as in Malagasy), and whether the object can be pointed to as a whole or only in part. The Eskimo–Aleut languages, and the Kiranti branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family 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 ("this near me"); iste, ista, istud ("that near you"); and ille, illa, illud ("that over there") – note that Latin has not only number, but also three grammatical genders. The third set of Latin demonstratives (ille, etc.), developed into the definite articles in most Romance languages, such as el, la, los, las in Spanish, and le, la, les in French.
With the exception of Romanian, and some varieties of Spanish and Portuguese, the neuter gender has been lost in the Romance languages. Spanish and Portuguese have kept neuter demonstratives:
Spanish Portuguese gender este este masculine esta esta feminine esto isto neuter
Neuter demonstratives refer to ideas of indeterminate gender, such as abstractions and groups of heterogeneous objects, and has a limited agreement in Portuguese, for example, "all of that" can be translated as "todo aquele" (m), "toda aquela" (f) or "tudo aquilo" (n) in Portuguese, although the neuter forms require a masculine adjective agreement: "Tudo (n) aquilo (n) está quebrado (m)" (All of that is broken).
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 Standard Chinese. Modern Mandarin has two main demonstratives, proximal 這/这 and distal 那; its use of the three Classical demonstratives has become mostly idiomatic, although 此 continues to be used with some frequency in modern written Chinese. Cantonese uses proximal 呢 and distal 嗰 instead of 這 and 那, respectively.
Hungarian has two spatial demonstratives: ez (this) and az (that). These inflect for number and case even in attributive position (attributes usually remain uninflected in Hungarian) with possible orthographic changes; e.g., ezzel (with this), abban (in that). A third degree of deixis is also possible in Hungarian, with the help of the am- prefix: amaz (that there). The use of this, however, is emphatic (when the speaker wishes to emphasize the distance) and not mandatory.
The Cree language has a special demonstrative for "things just gone out of sight," and Ilocano, a language of the Philippines, has three words for this referring to a visible object, a fourth for things not in view and a fifth for things that no longer exist." The Tiriyó language has a demonstrative for "things audible but non-visible"
While most languages and language families have demonstrative systems, some have systems highly divergent from or more complex than the relatively simple systems employed in Indo-European languages. In Yupik languages, notably in the Chevak Cup’ik language, there exists a 29-way distinction in demonstratives, with demonstrative indicators distinguished according to placement in a three-dimensional field around the interlocutor(s), as well as by visibility and whether or not the object is in motion.
Demonstrative determiners and pronouns
It is relatively common for a language to distinguish between demonstrative determiners or demonstrative adjectives (sometimes also called determinative demonstratives, adjectival demonstratives or adjectival demonstrative pronouns) and demonstrative pronouns (sometimes called independent demonstratives, substantival demonstratives, independent demonstrative pronouns or substantival demonstrative pronouns).
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 yon or yonder (the latter is usually employed as a demonstrative determiner; even so it is rarely used in most dialects of English, although it persists in some dialects such as Southern American English). Author Bill Bryson laments the "losses along the way" of yon and yonder:
Today we have two demonstrative pronouns, this and that, but in Shakespeare's day there was a third, yon (as in the Milton line "Him that yon soars on golden wing"), which suggested a further distance than that. You could talk about this hat, that hat, and yon hat. Today the word survives as a colloquial adjective, yonder, but our speech is fractionally impoverished for its loss.
Many languages have sets of demonstrative adverbs that are closely related to the demonstrative pronouns in a language. For example, corresponding to the demonstrative pronoun that are the adverbs such as then (= "at that time"), there (= "at that place"), thither (= "to that place"), thence (= "from that place"); equivalent adverbs corresponding to the demonstrative pronoun this are now, here, hither, hence. A similar relationship exists between the interrogative pronoun what and the interrogative adverbs when, where, whither, whence. See pro-form for a full table.
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.
- This is what I mean: I am happy with him.
- That way of looking at it is wrong.
- I said her dress looked hideous. She didn't like that.
In the above, this sentence refers to the sentence being spoken, and the pronoun this refers to what is about to be spoken; that way refers to "the previously mentioned way", and the pronoun 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. In English, that (or occasionally those) refers to something previously spoken, while this (or occasionally these) refers to something about to be spoken (or, occasionally, something being simultaneously spoken).
- In Brazilian Portuguese "este" (this) is sometimes reduced to "es'e", making it sound like "esse" (that).
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