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A lot of words are defined in terms of "this", such as "here: this place". But "this" can be a pronoun ("is this your bag?") or determiner ("don't listen to this guy") or other things, all of which are kind of difficult to conceptually wrap your head around. I am wondering how the concept/function/word of "this" works in other languages.

  • Do any languages completely do without a concept for "this" and "that"?
  • Do any languages have more words than just this and that (that are relative to specifying a thing's distance)?
  • Do any languages treat "this" as not a pronoun or determiner, but as a noun of some sort, or a verb of some sort, or an adjective (one of the 3 easy classes of words to conceptually grasp)?

If so, what are the key examples used to demonstrate this? Mainly I care about the 3rd point, but the other 2 would also be interesting cases to consider.

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    I question "adjectives" being a basic class of words alongside nouns and verbs. Nouns and verbs appear to be universal, but adjectives as a separate class are distinctly not.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 22:43
  • Related
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 22:44
  • Follow-up question on Reddit (since it is more open-ended than SE likes).
    – Lance
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 23:16
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    This and that are demonstrative pronouns, which are Determiners, not Adjectives (English does have an Adjective class, but Determiners aren't in it).
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 23:38
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    Where English has 2 words this and that, the Aleut language has up to 30 distinct demonstrative pronouns, which means it distinguishes up to 30 different deictic positions, beginning from close to the speaker and then going farther and farther away and also the ones above and below, and that last, and that last but one, and closer to the door, and right in the door, and behind the door, and in the porch, and the making distinction of items standing, sitting, lying, passing by, and also those which are not seen, being outside of the house, or outside of this land, all pretty detailed.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 0:59

1 Answer 1

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Do any languages completely do without a concept for "this" and "that"?

The general concept behind "this" and "that" is called "deixis" (from the Greek for "pointing out", since it "points out" a specific thing), and I've seen it claimed in various different sources that all languages have some form of it. It's hard to prove a negative, but I've never seen any language without some form of deixis, and the claim has been repeated enough times that I doubt any mainstream linguist has either. (Certain people claim Pirahã lacks deixis, like it lacks every other linguistic universal, but these claims are far from universally accepted due to the difficulty in reproducing Everett's results.)

Do any languages have more words than just this and that (that are relative to specifying a thing's distance)?

Tons. English used to, with "yon" as a third category farther away than "that". Japanese has kore "close to me", sore "close to you", and are "far from both of us". Ancient Greek has hoûtos "this, nearby, aforementioned", hóde "this/that, present, about to be mentioned", ekeînos "that, far away". And so on.

Do any languages treat "this" as not a pronoun or determiner, but as a noun of some sort, or a verb of some sort, or an adjective (one of the 3 easy classes of words to conceptually grasp)?

"Adjectives" as a distinct class are far from universal, but in Latin the demonstratives function syntactically the same as words like "good" or "red". The ancient grammarians considered this a special type of noun (nomen) since it could also be used in the same syntactic contexts as "man" or "road".

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    Yes. If you want to follow up on this, try Fillmore's Deixis Lectures. Clear and full of surprises; imo, the best linguistic writing of the 20th century.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 23:36
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    @jlawler I had, in fact, never heard of those before; downloading them to read now!
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 23:58
  • Enjoy. I wish there were tapes of his delivery.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 1:59
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    Add Latin, Thai, and even English to languages that have more than just "this and that."
    – cmw
    Commented Jul 28, 2022 at 18:18

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