When it comes to spatial deixis most languages seem to have either two or three distinctions:

2        | 3
English  | Spanish      Japanese
here     | aquí / acá   koko
there    | ahí          soko
(yonder) | allá / allí  asoko

Are there any languages with distinctions other than these?

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    I've heard that Danish has a system as complex as Malagasy, but I don't speak the language myself, so you should probably ask around. – Philip Seyfi Sep 26 '11 at 10:10
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    It should be noted that in Spanish, the three grades of proximity correlate precisely with the three grammatical persons. 1ˢᵗ: ‘esta cosa aquí = cerca de mí’; 2ⁿᵈ ‘esa cosa ahí = cerca de ti’; 3ʳᵈ: ‘aquella cosa allí = cerca de él’. An related question is whether other languages with three grades also have three grades in demonstratives and location-words that correspond to the three numeric persons. It might also be interesting if anyone can report on whether and how this relates to Navajo’s so-called ‘4ᵗʰ person’. – tchrist Jan 24 '12 at 17:07
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    @tchrist you forget acullá which adds a fourth level in Spanish (and really, aquí is right here, whereas acá is in this general area here [ditto for allí/allá], so strictly speaking, Spanish has a six level distinction: aquí, acá, ahí, allí, allá, acullá. I'm really interested in this article on acullí that's to be published online next year bulletinhispanique.revues.org/2176?lang=es ). Also @ OP, English has threeway: here, there, yonder ('round these parts we still use it) – user0721090601 Dec 1 '15 at 1:19
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    @tchrist ping, that article I mentioned is now published, will probably be of interest to you. Haven't had the time to read it in full myself though because my (lack of) French does not lend itself to quick reads. – user0721090601 Feb 22 '16 at 1:56
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    @PhilipSeyfi Only ten years late, but no, the Danish deixis system only distinguishes proximal (‘here’) and distal (‘there’). There is an overtly distal form (hin, equivalent to ‘yon’), but like ‘yon’ in English, it’s very archaic except in the fixed phrase hinanden ‘each other’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 1 at 15:51

13 Answers 13


The Malagasy language for example, national language of Madagascar, has a complex system of deixis with seven degrees of distance. Here's the tab taken from the Deixis section:

enter image description here (Image Source)

Notes: (1) Diacritics in deixis are not mandatory in Malagasy; (2) Deixis marked by a * are rarely used.

About the Malagasy deixis, you could read "The Austronesian languages of Asia and Madagascar" by K. Alexander Adelaar and Nikolaus Himmelmann (see page 470).

It seems that also the Dyirbal language (Australian family; North Queensland) has 15 suffixes that attach to demonstratives or to the noun classifiers, using a system that takes into consideration:

  • the distance (short, medium, distant);
  • the counter-current direction;
  • the current direction of the river;
  • the direction towards the top or base of a hill;
  • the vertical movement towards the bottom or the top.

Unfortunately I couldn't find anything schematic about this one yet. But you can find more about it and others in this page.

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    Go ahead with the screenshot, people post them on other SE sites all the time. Crop just the bit we need. – hippietrail Sep 22 '11 at 7:55
  • @hippietrail done :) – Alenanno Sep 22 '11 at 8:06
  • There's more detail on the Malagasy deictics here. – Gaston Ümlaut Feb 21 '12 at 0:00
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    It only really seems like the Malagasy is a three-way deixis system, with PROX, MED, and DIST. The elaboration here appears to be due to an orthogonal visible evidentiality distinction that happens to be encoded with the same syntactic elements. Evidentiality isn’t usually thought of as deixis, since it has to do with the experience of the origo rather than the spatiotemporal position relative to the origo. – James C. Mar 4 '12 at 22:00
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    @Alenanno There's actually considerable uncertainty about Malagasy: Adelaar and Himmelmann claim a 7-way contrast (but don't provide any edvidence) while others have claimed it to have a 5-way contrast. Imai (1997) gives evidence that Malagasy really has a 3-way system, but accepts that the issue is not settled. – Gaston Ümlaut May 11 '12 at 1:41

Tlingit has a four-way system of deixis in its demonstratives (which are more like determiners because they cannot encode entities when used alone).

— proximal: near speaker, usually within reach

— mesioproximal: near speaker but usually closer to listener than speaker

— mesiodistal: near listener and out of reach of speaker, or out of reach of both listener and speaker but still easily reachable

— distal: distant, well beyond the reach of either listener or speaker

To demonstrate:

yá ax̱ jín ‘this, my hand’ (speaker gestures to own hand)

hé i káaxweiyí ‘this, your coffee’ (speaker gestures to listener’s coffee cup)

wé x̱ʼaháat ‘that door’ (speaker gestures to door on other side of the room)

yú hít ‘that building’ (speaker gestures to building visible through window)

The most common pair, according to my intuitive experience, are and parallelling English ‘this’ and ‘that’. is used somewhat less often than . is not used as much as the other three because it is often an irrelevant distinction, but it does occur in a number of conventionalized oppositions such as ‘right’ vs. ‘left’, ‘starboard’ vs. ‘port’, or ‘fore’ vs. ‘back’. All Tlingit speakers I have met demonstrate full competency with the entire system despite any frequency issues, and given its understanding by the semi-speakers and relearners I have talked to, it is probably something acquired fairly early in childhood.

I think the speaker could say yá i káaxweiyí only if they touched or were otherwise close to the listener’s coffee cup somehow. If the speaker wanted to differentiate their hands, they could wave their right hand and say yá ax̱ sheeynax̱.aanáx̱ jín and then wave their left hand and say hé ax̱ sʼátnax̱.aanáx̱ jín ‘this my left hand’.

All of these demonstratives can be used for discourse purposes as well, to locate notional things like propositions, utterances, and situations in positions relative to the spatiotemporal centre of the discourse. Thus one can distance oneself from another’s words by saying yú hasdu yoo x̱ʼatángi ‘that (distal) their speech’, or align oneself with another’s words by saying yá hasdu yoo x̱ʼatángi ‘this (proximal) their speech’. The subtle differences between these, and indeed the discursive uses of the deixis system in general, have yet to be explored in any sort of detail.

None of this system really has anything to do with visibility or other forms of evidentiality, as has been described in a lot of deictic ‘complex’ systems. It’s instead strictly deixis, encoding the relative distance from the origo. Also note that it has nothing to do with personal exclusivity, since Tlingit has no encoding of inclusive versus exclusive person.


American Sign Language. Spatial diexis is indicated by what looks like a pointing gesture, (When discussing physically present referents,one just points at them.) for which there is a potentially infinite number of distinctions.

Basic info: Pronouns in ASL (.doc download)

Details: The effect of number marking on the use of space in ASL

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    This kind of deixis is the same pragmatic distinction available from pointing in spoken languages. For it to really be a deictic system as conventionally understood there needs to be some sort of categorical distinction between different distances. – James C. Mar 5 '12 at 22:19
  • For distances there are (three) but your point holds for compass direction, that are part of the same sign. – Joe Martin Mar 28 '12 at 15:39

According to John McWhorter, there is a language called Muna (spoken in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi), in which the system of spatial deixis works like this:

The word ini means 'this here,' itu means “that there,” maitu means “that near him,” watu means “that over there by him,” tatu means “that up there,” and nagha means “that which we can hear but not see”.


Inuktitut is also a language with deixis encoding things such as visible/nonvisible and "up there" as opposed to simply "there, over there".

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    It would be great if you could include some examples of them. – hippietrail Sep 22 '11 at 19:33
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    These can be analysed as fusions of deictic+a height demonstrative, but Italian has quassù (up here), quaggiù (down here), lassù (up there), laggiù (down there). – jogloran Feb 24 '12 at 12:57

Spanish (at least in Mexico) distinguishes two different deixis factors. I'll show it phonemically instead of orthographically:

                   near listener    far from listener
    near speaker        aki              aka
far from speaker        aji              aja

So if I'm talking to you about something that's here in the same room as us, I'd say it's aki. It's here where both of us are.

If I'm inviting you to come across the room to sit over here by me, I'd invite you to come aka. This emphasizes that it's over here by me, not "here" where we both are.

If I'm talking about something over near you, I'd say it's aji.

If I'm pointing at something far off, something far from both of us, I'd say it's aja.

  • Where does "ahí" fit in, or isn't it used in Mexico? – hippietrail Feb 22 '12 at 8:14
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    It seems that "allí" and "ahí" have merged in Mexican Spanish. I've heard native speakers saying they didn't know the difference between the two spellings. Consider that these are phonemically /aji/ and /ai/, and you can see how they would sound almost exactly the same. – Joe Feb 22 '12 at 22:23
  • @Joe Yeísmo takes its toll: /aˈʎi/ is rather further from /ai/. Iberian Spanish doesn’t have so much trouble with those, even in yeístas who say [aˈʝ̞i] – tchrist Mar 1 '12 at 4:34

Sinhala, one of the languages spoken in Sri Lanka has a four way deixis system. written phonemically - me = this/these, near the speaker oye = that/those, near the listener are = (distal) visible but far from both speaker and listener e = (distal) not visible to either Jim Gair has written extensively about it. This is an online document I found about it


For Kwakw'ala (Kwakiutl) Boas 1947 grammar describes as deictic system of 3 degrees combined with a distinction visible/invisible

Pronominal demonstratives

Close to 1st person visible -k invisible -gaʔ
Close to 2nd person visible -ux invisible -uʔ
Away from 1/2nd pers visible -iq invisible -iʔ

The visibility distinction may be a typical feature of Nothern Wakashan languages in general (cf Emmon Bach (2006) Paradigm regained: Deixis in Northern Wakashan, SOAS Working Papers in Linguistcs Vol 14:267-281


Some languages like Japanese have spatial deixis words that refer to both the speaker and the listener. Sometimes analyzed as proximal, medial and distant, it's more often analyzed as "close to me, the speaker", "close to you, the listener" and "far from the two of us."

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    That (ko-, so-, a-) is a three way system. The original question asked about systems that had more than three distinctions. – James C. Mar 5 '12 at 22:18

Kiranti Languages are known to exhibit a remarkably unique feature, so-called altitudinal cases. Nouns are always (? I think, it's been a while) marked as being either "above", "below" or "across" (= level). This is tied to both the geographic profile of the region and to the mythological dimensions of verticality.


Portuguese has words sounding like Spanish, but with different meanings:

  • Aqui / Cá / Aquém — near from speaker
  • Ali / Acolá — medium distance from speaker
  • Lá / Além — far from speaker
  • Aí — near to listener

Cebuano also has three, from the speaker's point of view:

Kini ( ki-ni ) (ni) – this / these
Kana ( ka-na ) (na) – that / those
Kadto ( kad-to ) (to) – that / those over there (far away)

The location deixis in Muna language:

DEIXIS OF LOCATION demonstrative (pronoun/adjective) Aini (this) aitu, amaitu,atatu, awatu(that) Demonstrative (adverbs) We ini (here) we itu, we watu (there)

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