Currently, I am doing some research on indexicals, by which I mean words like:

  • I
  • here
  • now
  • today, tomorrow, yesterday
  • local
  • present, current

For ease of reference, let’s call these the ‘standard’ indexicals. The few languages with which I’m familiar contain (translations/equivalents of) the standard indexicals. However, I also know of a few non-standard indexicals. In particular, English has ‘yesteryear’, which is like ‘yesterday’ and denotes the previous year (or the past more generally). Similarly, some German dialects have ‘heuer’ (not be confused with ‘heute’), which means the current year; so, ‘heuer’ is to ‘year’ what ‘today’ is to ‘day’.

Now, my question is: does anybody know of any language that contains non-standard indexicals, like ‘yesteryear’ and ‘heuer’? Similarly, are there languages that lack one or more of the standard indexicals?

Another, less urgent question: does anyone know a language that contains synonymous indexicals? E.g., German has both ‘jetzt’ and ‘nun’, both meaning ‘now.

EDIT in response to a comment by @Atamiri

I called the indexicals on my list ‘standard’ because they exist in all the languages with which I’m familiar (again, that’s not many). More particularly, they exist there as words – at least according to one way of individuating words. (Focus on 'I', 'now', and 'here' if you don't think 'to-day' etc. can count as words.) By contrast, there’s no word for heuer in English and we must use a compound (viz. ‘this (current) year’) to translate it. So, the kind of example I’m looking for goes a bit like this: there’s this language, Example-ese, and in Example-ese, there’s the indexical word ‘dexi’, and ‘dexi’ is roughly synonymous with ‘last month’ – but ‘de’ doesn’t mean ‘last’, and ‘xi’ doesn’t mean ‘month’. (Of course, 'dexi' doesn't have to mean 'last month' or 'next week' or anything temporal. I'd also be interested if there's an indexical (word) that denotes the speaker's birth place, say, or the person sitting opposite the speaker.)

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    @WiccanKarnak As in e.g.: 'When we visited Vietnam last year, we tried the local food.' So, yes: geographically. Although, I suppose I also mean to include non-physical locations - like in an IT context. – MarkOxford Jan 27 '18 at 11:39
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    You're going to have to give us a more precise definition of "standard" than "exists in all the languages with which [MarkOxford] is familiar with"... For example, would you say that the bewildering variety of Japanese pronouns are a bunch of non-standard indexicals? Or is the English word "I" better thought of as a non-standard indexical which awkwardly conflates the natural concepts denoted by the Japanese words "watashi," "ware," "ore," etc.? – John Goodrick Jan 28 '18 at 3:06
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    @jick Take: ‘John was born here and went to the local high school’. There, ‘local’ means roughly located near speaker – a bit like ‘here’ – and I think that’s why people often group it with the other indexicals. Now take: ‘The prisoner fled to York, where he was arrested by the local police’. In that sentence, ‘local’ means in York. Finally, take ‘Every time I go abroad, I try to local food’. This time, ‘local’ acts like a bound variable. So, I agree that ‘local’ is not like the others. I included it because some people still group it with the others. – MarkOxford Jan 28 '18 at 9:52
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    Read Fillmore's Deixis Lectures before you call anything "standard". There is a lot more going on than indexicals. – jlawler Feb 27 '18 at 21:11
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    @jlawler Thanks for those links (and putting the stuff up there in the first place). That was a hugely satisfying, rewarding read. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Mar 7 '18 at 22:24

If I understand the question correctly, then answer is yes.

In short, languages are not 1:1 and that includes function words. That is why translation is hard and, in some cases, impossible.

Note that there is no standard set of words that should be opaque single words, the modern English set is certainly not the standard.

Now, my question is: does anybody know of any language that contains non-standard indexicals, like ‘yesteryear’ and ‘heuer’?

I believe, by providing two examples, you have answered this yourself. In fact you have pointed out that the sets vary even between dialects of the same language.

There are plenty of opaquely-formed or anyway single-word indexicals common to not very exotic languages for concepts which are hard to represent without analysable constructs in modern English: like this, like that, the day before yesterday, the day after tomorrow, last night, you all, over there, of this, you (explicitly singular)...

If your set of concepts is basically the English one, it will be hard to find these.

Nor can we assume the reverse. here, there, today, tonight are this place, that place, this day, this night, this hour... in plenty of languages. The English versions are not totally opaque either, day and night are lexemes, it is obvious there was evolution.

In some cases, English can express a concept in a single word, but not precisely. For example you is very overloaded compared to any language known to me, except maybe English-based creoles.

Then there are concepts like the dual, we inclusive vs we exclusive, and different flavours of there (see ahí, allá, aquí, acá), and pronouns for noun classes beyond m f n which are hard to express elegantly in English.

My point is not to show that English is deficient, but to show that the number of potential concepts is great, and every language is missing many if not most.

We also do not have a perfect definition of what a word is anyway. The absence of a space is more of an orthographic convention. You should look at language cycle theory and creolisation to understand how this works. English and French alone provide plenty of examples.

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  • Thanks! This is helpful, but I was really hoping for a few concrete examples (besides ‘yesteryear’ and ‘heuer’). You say: ‘There are plenty of […] single-word indexicals […] for concepts which are hard to represent without analysable constructs in modern English’ – That’s exactly what I'm looking for; but could you tell me what some of them are? Similarly, you say that ‘here, there, today, tonight are this place, that place, this day, this night, this hour... in plenty of languages.’ Again, if you could tell me what these languages are specifically, that’d be fantastic. – MarkOxford Jan 28 '18 at 14:29
  • Samples of English pointer words that are separate words in other languages: tr burada, orada, nerede, bugün, nasıl. Edge cases, vowel harmony is one clue, I leave that judgement to the reader. Similar constructions in fa (kuja, inja, em shab, di shab, che kar, chetor...) and hy . sada in sh. it a ora (but adesso). Arguably es ahora. fr au jour d'hui (lit the day of today). tonight is relatively unique - ca nuit, esta noche, questa notte or questa sera, segodnja nočju or reformist večerom... por qué, pour quoi, per che... – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 28 '18 at 16:59
  • Honestly I always forget if heut Nacht, heut Abend are written as two words. To me it is a good sign that the definition of standard is arbitrary. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 28 '18 at 16:59
  • Now words that do not have single word equivalents in English: – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 28 '18 at 17:00
  • Keeping in mind that English is evolving, so most speakers do not use hither, thou, therewith, certain senses of so or thusly, and replace them with less precise or multi-word constructions. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 28 '18 at 17:02

I try to avoid "survey/list" questions like these to which there's no right answer, but here's one...

My aunt, a linguist and translator in Nepal, reports that the Indo-Aryan language Maithili has a word that shares the meanings "yesterday" and "tomorrow". In other words, it means "one day removed" and is qualified by a phrase like "that is yet to come" or "that has already come" to disambiguate the two (when the context doesn't make it obvious).

Come to think of it, my grandma, who ran a school in Pakistan, said that Urdu works like that too. One dictionary seems to support that; "yesterday" and "tomorrow" both yield کل kal.

Hopefully this "bifurcated" indexical constitutes an example of a "non-standard" one.

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Well, Portuguese has some that, whether "standard" or not, do not match English indexicals.

It has three different words for "there", , ali and , the first of which refers to something close to the second person, and the other two to something removed from both first and second person ( conotes a longer distance than ali). And, oh, it has a fourth word for "there", acolá, meaning more or less "further there".

It has a word for the day before yesterday, anteontem. And a word for the day before that, too: trasanteontem, though this is much less used. It used to have a word for "this year", ogano, but it fell into disuse.

But I am not sure that these are "non-standard" indexicals. How do we define the standard ones? (It can't be just "I", I suppose: "you" and some third person pronouns would be necessary, too - but are plurals, gender forms, or exclusivity, "standard"?)

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