Demonstratives are universal: Every language has a way of saying ‘this’ or ‘that’

NORWICH, United Kingdom — Wherever you go in the world, there will always be words for “this” and “that.” A study led by a team at the University of East Anglia has uncovered a surprising linguistic universal among languages from around the globe. Contrary to the belief that languages vary significantly in how they express spatial distinctions, the research shows that when it comes to words like “this” and “that,” speakers of diverse languages make similar distinctions based on whether they can physically reach the object they are referring to.

The study, which involved more than 1,000 speakers of 29 different languages, aimed to explore how demonstratives, words that indicate the location of an object in relation to the speaker, are used across linguistic diversity. These words are exemplified in phrases like “this cat” or “that dog,” where “this” and “that” specify the object’s proximity to the speaker.

“There are over 7,000 diverse languages spoken across the world,” says study lead author Kenny Coventry, professor at UEA’s School of Psychology, in a university release. “We wanted to find out how speakers of a wide range of languages use the oldest recorded words in all of language – spatial demonstratives, such as ‘this’ or ‘that’.”

Foreign languages with a translate button
(© Cybrain –

The international team, comprised of 45 researchers from 32 institutions worldwide, examined 29 languages, including English, Spanish, Norwegian, Japanese, Mandarin, Tzeltal, and Telugu. They conducted tests on over 1,000 speakers to observe how demonstratives are employed across various spatial contexts.

Researchers uncovered a remarkable consistency in the use of demonstratives across all languages tested. Regardless of the language spoken, a clear distinction emerged: there was a word used to describe objects within the speaker’s reach, akin to “this” in English, and another word used for objects out of the speaker’s reach, comparable to “that.”

“We found that in all the languages we tested, there is a word for objects that are within reach of the speaker, like ‘this’ in English, and a word for objects out of reach – ‘that,’” explains Coventry. “This distinction may explain the early evolutionary origin of demonstratives as linguistic forms.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

You might also be interested in:

YouTube video

Follow on Google News

About the Author

StudyFinds Staff

StudyFinds sets out to find new research that speaks to mass audiences — without all the scientific jargon. The stories we publish are digestible, summarized versions of research that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer