Global Languages Echo: The Universal “This” and “That” Distinction

Summary: A new study reveals a universal linguistic truth: languages across the globe have words for ‘this’ and ‘that.’

Examining 29 different languages and 1,000+ speakers, researchers found that all languages use demonstratives like ‘this’ or ‘that’ based on an object’s reachability. It dispels earlier beliefs of spatial distinctions varying across languages.

The study suggests this might hint at the early evolutionary origin of such linguistic forms.

Key Facts:

  1. The study encompassed 29 global languages and involved over 1,000 speakers.
  2. Every language tested distinguished between reachable (like ‘this’) and non-reachable (like ‘that’) objects.
  3. The research spanned 33 international institutions and was funded by an EU H2020 ITN Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action grant.

Source: University of East Anglia

Languages around the world have words for ‘this’ and ‘that’ according to new research from an international team, led by the University of East Anglia.

Researchers studied more than 1,000 speakers of 29 different languages to see how they use demonstratives – words that show where something is in relation to a person talking such as ‘this cat’ or ‘that dog’.

This shows a globe.
“This distinction may explain the early evolutionary origin of demonstratives as linguistic forms,” he added. Credit: Neuroscience News

It was previously thought that languages vary in the spatial distinctions they make – and that speakers of different languages may think in fundamentally different ways as a consequence.

But the new study shows that all of the languages tested make the same spatial distinctions using words like ‘this’ or ‘that’ based on whether they can reach the object they are talking about.

Lead researcher Prof Kenny Coventry, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said; “There are over 7,000 diverse languages spoken across the world.

“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’.”

The 45-strong international team studied 29 languages from around the world including English, Spanish, Norwegian, Japanese, Mandarin, Tzeltal and Telugu.

They tested over 1,000 speakers to see how they use demonstratives in their language to describe where objects are across a range of different spatial configurations.

Statistical analysis revealed the same mapping between reachable and non-reachable objects and demonstratives across all languages.

Prof Coventry said: “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’.

“This distinction may explain the early evolutionary origin of demonstratives as linguistic forms,” he added.

This research was led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with researchers at 32 other international institutions including Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Germany, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Aarhus University, Denmark, and the University of Buffalo, USA.

Funding: It was funded by by EU H2020 ITN Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action grant agreement no. 676063 (DCOMM) awarded to Kenny R. Coventry and colleagues. 

About this language and linguistics research news

Author: Lisa Horton
Source: University of East Anglia
Contact: Lisa Horton – University of East Anglia
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Spatial Communication Systems Across Languages Reflect Universal Action Constraints” by Kenny Coventry et al. Nature Human Behavior


Spatial Communication Systems Across Languages Reflect Universal Action Constraints

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