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.[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). 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)"

in Italian:

  • 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:

  • このリンゴ
kono ringo
"this apple"
  • そのリンゴ
sono ringo
"that apple"
  • あのリンゴ
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).

Ancient Greek has a three-way distinction between ὅδε (hóde "this here"), οὗτος (hoûtos "this"), and ἐκεῖνος (ekeînos "that").

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"

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.