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In linguistics, demonstratives are often deictic words (they depend on an external frame of reference) that indicate which entities the speaker refers to and distinguishes those entities from others. Demonstratives are employed for spatial deixis (using the context of the physical surroundings of the speaker and sometimes the listener), but also in intra-discourse reference - so called "discourse deixis" (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.

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[edit]

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, Armenian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, Georgian, Basque and Japanese make a three-way distinction.[1] 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[2] (objects far from both). Italian also provided for a medial (codesto/codesta for things, costui/costei for people), but it fell out of use in the 19th century (though it's still commonly used in Tuscany). 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]

in Armenian (based on the proximal "s", medial "d/t", and distal "n"):

այս խնձորը
"this apple"
այդ խնձորը
"that apple (near you)"
այն խնձորը
"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"

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)"

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). .

Japanese, 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 makes the same two-way distinction as English. For example هذه البنت (haðihi l-bint) 'this girl' versus تلك البنت (tilka l-bint) 'that girl'.

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

dieses Mädchen hier ~ dieses Mädchen dort/da
"this girl [here]" ~ "that girl [there]"

A distal demonstrative exists in German, cognate to the English yonder, but it is used only in formal registers.[3]

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,[4] and the Kiranti branch[5] 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[edit]

Latin had several sets of demonstratives, including hic, haec, hoc ("this near me"); ille, illa, illud ("that over there"); and iste, ista, istud ("that near you") – note that Latin has not only number, but also three grammatical genders. The second 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.

Although, 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

Some forms of Spanish (Caribbean Spanish, Andalusian Spanish, etc.) and Portuguese (Brazilian Portuguese) also occasionally employ ello (Sp.), elo (Port.), which is an archaic survival of the neuter pronoun from Latin illud.[citation needed]

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 translate 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).[6] 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.[6] Modern Mandarin has two main demonstratives, proximal 這 and distal 那; its use of the three Classical demonstratives has become mostly idiomatic,[7] although 此 continues to be used with some frequency in modern written Chinese.

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."[8]

Demonstrative determiners and pronouns[edit]

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,[9] 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.).[10] 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.

—Bill Bryson [10]

Demonstrative adverbs[edit]

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.

Discourse deixis[edit]

Main article: Deictic expression

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).[citation needed]


  1. ^ In Brazilian Portuguese "este" (this) is sometimes reduced to "es'e", making it sound like "esse" (that).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2002). "Demonstrativpronomina in den slavischen Sprachen" [Demonstrative pronouns in the Slavic languages]. In Symanzik, Bernhard; Birkfellner, Gerhard; Sproede, Alfred. Die Übersetzung als Problem sprach- und literaturwissenschaftlicher Forschung in Slavistik und Baltistik: Beiträge zu einem Symposium in Münster 10./11. Mai 2001. Studien zur Slavistik ; vol. 1 (in German). Hamburg: Dr. Kovač. pp. 89–91. ISBN 3-8300-0714-0. OCLC 55730212. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  2. ^ Manosso, Radamés. "Demonstrativos". Gramática Descritiva (in Portuguese). Retrieved 27 May 2011. 
  3. ^ Hopkins, Edwin A.; Jones, Randall L. (Spring 1972). ""Jener" in Modern Standard German". Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German (American Association of Teachers of German) 5 (1): 15–27. JSTOR 3529001. 
  4. ^ Steven A. Jacobson (1984). "Central Yup'ik and the Schools". University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research. Retrieved 2007-05-24. 
  5. ^ Balthasar Bickel (1998). "A short introduction to Belhare and its speakers". Retrieved 2009-03-16. 
  6. ^ a b Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1995). Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press. ISBN 0-7748-0541-2. 
  7. ^ Yip, Po-Ching; Rimmington, Don (2004). Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15032-9. 
  8. ^ Bill Bryson, op cite, p. 64, citing Mario Pei, The Story of Language. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1949.
  9. ^ US English website article on Demonstrative Pronouns. Accessed July 6, 2009.
  10. ^ a b Bryson, Bill (1990). The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got that Way. New York: William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-07895-8. pp. 63-64.

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