Languages have binary opposites such as

Term Negation Third Term
this that ?
black white ?
up down ?
left right ?

but are there languages that have a third term describing the relationship between these opposites?

My question is inspired by the introduction to Semetsky, Edusemiotics — A Handbook (2006):

Modern philosophy is largely dualistic […] the philosophy of Cartesian dualism. Eastern thought proclaims “the polar relationship of all opposites” (Capra [The Tao of Physics] 1975, p. 112). For Taosit philosopher Chuang Tzu, for example, ‘this’ is also ‘that’ and ‘that’ is also ‘this’. The apparent opposites are united, hence cease to be binaries but complement each other in the manner of yin and yang [☯], of body and mind, of material and spiritual, of intuitive wisdom and rational knowledge.

cf. "What logics/philosophies deny the law of excluded middle (LEM)?"

  • 4
    What exactly do you mean by “a third term describing the relationship between these opposites”? What would that third term actually mean? ‘A third term’ would imply that you’re expecting the word to lie on the same ‘scale’ (like ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ lie on the same scale as ‘hot’ and ‘cold’), but if it’s a word that describes the relationship (i.e., the scale), then it can’t logically be on the scale (like ‘temperature’ for ‘cold/cool/warm/hot’). Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 21:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet "‘A third term’ would imply that you’re expecting the word to lie on the same ‘scale’" No, that's not what I mean. I mean "a word that describes the relationship" between the opposites.
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 23:36
  • Well, then of course there are – probably all languages do. ‘Temperature’, for example, describes the relationship between hot and cold; ‘colour’ or ‘darkness’ describes the relationship between black and white; ‘deixis’ describes the relationship between this and that. No language will automatically have a word for every type of relationship (e.g., the relationship between doors opening inwards and doors opening outwards probably doesn’t have a name anywhere), but all will have words for some of them. Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 6:35

2 Answers 2


For 'this' and 'that' specifically—that is, in the sphere of spatial deixis—there are a lot of languages that have a three-way (or more) distinction instead of the two-way distinction most modern English dialects have. Ancient Greek famously has ὅδε 'this' (proximal), οὗτος 'that' (medial), and ἐκεῖνος 'that over there' (distal), and so did English at one point (and still in some places) with this, that, and yon. Apparently Sinhala has a four-way distinction between 'near me', 'near you', 'near a third person, visible', and 'far from all, not visible', and there are languages that have even more elaborate systems.

This isn't a general propensity towards non-dualism so much as just a property of this one system, though.

  • If this is what they mean then I can confirm that Swahili and most Bantu languages have the distinction based on proximity. It can be near the speaker, near the "speakee" or far from both of them. I have also studied some Japanese and it has the same distinction.
    – Ingasha
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 17:33

An example from English first: black, grey, white. There is a continuum of color terms where black and white define the endpoints, and grey is between the two. Numerous Bantu languages have demonstrative where the closest is something you are holding and the furthest is "over yonder", with points in between like "closer to me", "closer to you" and so on. Knowledge can be judged on a scale ranging from "arbitrary" to "certain", with "possible" and "probable" in between. Terms for temperature have many points.

It not being clear what you are asking about, I would guess that the term describing these kinds of attributes is "continuum".

  • 1
    Does "grey" describe the relationship between "black" and "white"?
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 10, 2023 at 23:37

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