Author: Juan F. Trillo, PhD in Linguistics and Philosophy (U. Autónoma de Madrid), PhD in Literary Studies (U. Complutense de Madrid).
The first word of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States is “We“, a personal pronoun belonging to the category of function words and, as such, ambiguous, which is why immediately afterwards and to clarify to whom they were referring, the Founding Fathers added: “the People of the United States,[…]”. Function words —determiners, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, modals, qualifiers and questions— are those that provide syntactic coherence to an utterance and, unlike content words —nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs— their number remains (almost) unchanged over time. The reason for their ambiguity is that they carry hardly any semantic load, so much so that their abuse can become an obstacle to communication rather than a help. Yet they make up 60% of the words we use, even though function words together make up only 1% of all the words we know 1. These figures give a good idea of their relevance in the communicative process.
We therefore find functional words in all languages and, given that in most cases they perform the same tasks, they are used in a similar way. A good example is the demonstratives, which we use to designate objects or people according to their proximity to the speaker and, while in languages such as Basque or Spanish there are three (‘hau’/‘esto’, ‘hori’/‘eso’, ‘hura’/‘aquello’), in others such as Danish, Nepali or English they constitute a binary system (in English: ‘this’ and ‘that’). Due to their inherent and already mentioned ambiguity, they are almost always accompanied by a gesture or a noun/adjective. However, they are extremely useful, as we all need at one time or another to point out something or someone to our interlocutor. For this reason, these two demonstratives, ‘this’ and ‘that’, are, together with ‘mama’, the first words that children learn when they are beginning to speak 234. They are, because of this, words well known to grammarians, grammaticians, and linguists —and to all of us, as a matter of fact— since long ago. For this reason, one might think that a work aimed at verifying whether these demonstratives exist in all languages and are used in the same way would be redundant and therefore unnecessary.
And yet this is what an international team of almost fifty linguists, neuroscientists and psychologists, led by the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, has done. In total, the researchers studied the use of these two words made by more than 1000 speakers of 29 different languages. The focus of the study published in Nature Human Behaviour 5, as its title indicates, is to verify whether the restrictions or limitations that spatial distribution imposes on language can be considered universal. To this end, they have examined the circumstances in which speakers of languages of such diverse origins as Norwegian, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, Basque, Yucatec, German, English or Danish, among others, use these words.
In essence, the results of this study show that in all cases, distance relative to the speaker is the crucial spatial factor when choosing one or the other term and that all speakers use these demonstratives in a similar way: ‘this’ to refer to objects or persons located in the immediate vicinity or within reach of the speaker (peripersonal/reachable space) and ‘that’ for objects or persons located close to the listener (extrapersonal/no-reachable space). It should be noted that in both Basque and Spanish, the third demonstrative (‘hura’/’aquello’) refers to objects or persons far away from both the speaker and the interlocutor, although a linguistic environment in which only two terms are used may force bilingual speakers to vary this usage 6. These results contribute to support the theory that language acquisition evolves from references located in the speaker’s physical environment, to those outside this area, and finally to purely symbolic communication 7. Therefore, according to their conclusions, demonstratives are the most important linguistic elements when it comes to establishing links between language and the physical environment of speakers, and their universality points “in the direction of support for gesture as central to both language learning and language evolution“. The researchers have also highlighted the weight that the large number of subjects participating in the study contributes to their conclusions, in contrast to what has sometimes happened with anthropological studies on this issue, which have relied on much smaller samples of speakers.
Regarding the statistical tool, the team used G*Power (version 3.1) and the experimental tests followed the ‘memory game’ method 8, designed to examine the relationships established between language, spatial memory and object knowledge: participants perform the tests under strict conditions, but without being aware that researchers are collecting data on their use of language. As for possible new work along these lines, the researchers are considering the possibility of studying other variables that might affect the choice of one demonstrative or another, such as visibility, ownership, familiarity or the direction of the speaker’s and interlocutor’s gaze.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of this study lies in supporting with empirical evidence those insights and theories that, as the researchers indicate in their essay, are “based on linguistic intuitions from a small number of informants [and, consequently, stand] on shaky ground“. Identify those generalisations that cut across languages requires the application of a robust statistical methodology, which allows for the separation of variations between different languages. Were it not for this small but relevant contribution, we could well say that we have an excellent candidate for next year’s Ig Nobel Prizes on our hands.
- Pennebaker, James. (2011) The Secret Life of Pronouns. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-60819-480-3. ↩
- Clark, E. V. (1978) in Human Growth and Development. Oxford Univ. Press, eds. Bruner, J. S. & Garton, A. 85–120. ↩
- Diessel, H. & Monakhov, S. (2023). Acquisition of demonstratives in cross-linguistic perspective. J. Child Lang. 50, 922–953. DOI: 10.1017/S030500092200023X ↩
- Spranger, M. & Steels, L. (2014). Discovering communication through ontogenetic ritualisation. In 4th Joint IEEE International Conference on Development and Learning and on Epigenetic Robotics 14–19 (IEEE). ↩
- Coventry, K.R., Gudde, H.B., Diessel, H. et al. (2023) ‘Spatial communication systems across languages reflect universal action constraints.’ Nature Human Behaviour DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01697-4 ↩
- Vulchanova, M., Guijarro-Fuentes, P., Collier, J. & Vulchanov, V. (2020) ‘Shrinking your deictic system: How far can you go?’ Front. Psychol. Lang. Sci. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.575497. ↩
- Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of Human Communication. MIT Press. ↩
- Gudde, H. B.; Griffths, D.; Coventry, K. R. (2018). ‘The (Spatial) Memory Game: Testing the Relationship Between Spatial Language, Object Knowledge, and Spatial Cognition’. National Library of Medicine. DOI: 10.3791/56495. ↩