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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 employed for spatial deixis (using the context of the physical surroundings) and as discourse deictics, referring to propositions mentioned in speech.

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


Distal and proximal demonstratives

Many languages, like 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 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 spoken in Brazil, the three are currently being reduced to two), but French does not. 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 'this girl' versus تلك البنت '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
"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.[1]

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 (like in Malagasy), and whether the object can be pointed at as a whole or only in part. The Eskimo-Aleut languages[2], and the Kiranti branch[3] 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; 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/este (masculine), ésta/esta (feminine), esto (neuter), Portuguese (este, esta, isto). 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).[4] 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 Mandarin Chinese.[4] Mandarin Chinese has only two main demonstratives, proximal 這 and distal 那; its use of the three Classical Chinese demonstratives has become mostly idiomatic[5], although 此 continues to be used with some frequency in modern written Chinese.

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."[6]

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). Demonstrative pronouns are also used as spacial adjectives.

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,[7] and the less common yon or yonder (the latter is usually employed as a demonstrative determiner; even so it is rarely used in common English).[8] Linguist 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 factionally impoverished for its loss.
Bill Bryson [8]

In English, demonstratives are not normally used to describe people. They are used almost exclusively for places, living animals, and symbolic animals (e.g., "This is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world."). Use of a demonstrative ("spacial adjective") to describe a child, instead of a name, suggests distancing, thus indicating the speaker may be lying.[9]

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


  1. ^ Hopkins, Edwin A.; Jones, Randall L. (Spring 1972), ""Jener" in Modern Standard German", Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German 5 (1): 15–27,  
  2. ^ Steven A. Jacobson (1984). "Central Yup'ik and the Schools". University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research. Retrieved 2007-05-24.  
  3. ^ Balthasar Bickel (1998). "A short introduction to Belhare and its speakers". Retrieved 2009-03-16.  
  4. ^ a b Pulleyblank, Edwin G. (1995). Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press. ISBN 0-7748-0541-2.  
  5. ^ Yip, Po-Ching; Rimmington, Don (2004). Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15032-9.  
  6. ^ Bill Bryson, op cite, p. 64, citing Mario Pei, The Story of Language. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1949.
  7. ^ US English website article on Demonstrative Pronouns. Accessed July 6, 2009.
  8. ^ a b Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got that Way, pp. 63-64. ISBN 0-888-07895-8.
  9. ^ Denise Kindschi Gosselin, Smart Talk: Contemporary Interviewing and Interrogation", p. 79. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007. ISBN 0-13-114696-3.


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