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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton April 10, 2023

From demonstrative to filler: este in Amazonian Spanish and beyond

  • Rosa Vallejos-Yopán ORCID logo EMAIL logo
From the journal Linguistics


In Amazonian Spanish, este has two main functions: demonstrative and filler. Filler-este, which originally evolved from demonstrative-este, serves to deal with word-formulation delays during spontaneous speech production. Analyses of conversations reveal that este primarily functions as a filler: 70% of the tokens of este are either fillers serving as placeholders, which replace lexical items in specific syntactic slots, or fillers serving as hesitators, which are non-referential and distributionally free. Further, phonetic analyses show that demonstrative-este and filler-este exhibit different phonetic shapes. Demonstrative-este patterns with disyllabic words with penultimate stress – the first vowel is longer than the second vowel. Filler-este shows the opposite configuration – the second vowel is significantly longer than the first vowel. The evolution of este from demonstrative to filler may have been facilitated by two conspiring forces: its use as cataphor whose referent comes later in the discourse, and its use for recognitional purposes, in which establishing a referent relies on shared knowledge. This use is often accompanied by signs of hesitation. The diachronic proposal outlined here can account for the emergence of the filler-este in several varieties of Spanish spoken in Latin America. Overall, this study contributes to our understanding of the syntax of real-time interaction.

1 Introduction

Languages display a range of devices for accomplishing delays. These devices are used when the speaker has production difficulties in spontaneous spoken discourse (Fox et al. 1996). Demonstratives are commonly used as fillers for dealing with word-formulation delay (Diessel 1999). Fillers can be placeholders, which are referential expressions used while “finding” a relevant lexical item and occupy a syntactic slot, or interjective hesitators, which also indicate delay, but are distributionally free (Hayashi and Yoon 2010). Crosslinguistic studies show that demonstratives are a common source of placeholders (Podlesskaya 2010).

The proximal demonstrative este is used as a filler throughout Latin America (Kany 1969; Martín Zorraquino and Portolés 1999). To offer an in-depth analysis of the phenomenon, this usage-based study focusses on the patterns of distribution of este in a specific variety, Peruvian Amazonian Spanish (PAS), and explores its evolution from a demonstrative into a filler. The proposed diachronic scenario can account for the emergence of the filler-este in other varieties of Spanish as well.

In PAS, este fulfills five syntactic functions synchronically: (i) prenominal demonstrative, (ii) postnominal demonstrative, (iii) pronominal demonstrative, (iv) nominal placeholder, and (v) interjective hesitator. No other demonstrative in PAS displays functions (iv) and (v).

Y ahí viene a llegar este hombre
‘and then this man arrives’
van a apoyar al candidato este
‘you have to support this candidate’
este que vive arriba
this who lives upstairs’
para comprar este, leche caspi
‘to buy this thing, leche Caspi (Couma macrocarpa)
gente que era, este, que trabajaba en el caucho.
‘people that was, hm, who work in rubber extraction’

The research questions explored in this study are the following:

  1. What is the overall distribution of usage of este in discourse?

  2. Do demonstrative-este, placeholders-este and hesitator-este exhibit phonetic correlates?

  3. Based on the synchronic facts, can we infer the path of development of este?

A total of 219 tokens of este were extracted from a corpus of natural conversations. The primary function of este is that of a filler as it accounts for 70% of the tokens. This study shows that the demonstratives and fillers have distinct phonetic profiles, which suggest we are dealing with two different forms in this variety of Spanish. Within the filler category, the phonetic difference between placeholders and hesitators is less clear. Finally, the synchronic distribution of este, as well as crosslinguistic studies of demonstratives, suggest the following path of change: demonstrative > placeholder > interjective hesitator. In other words, the proposal hypothesized here is that the emergence of the placeholder function of este may have been facilitated by the pronominal use of este for recognitional purposes. In recognitional use, as illustrated in (3), the demonstrative’s referent is identifiable due to the speaker and hearer’s shared knowledge. The recognitional use is closely related to problems in establishing reference (Himmelmann 1996: 230). Next, este is associated with difficulties in remembering specific lexical items. In the next phase of the development, the placeholder loses referentiality, the speaker does not have something specific in mind thus becoming an interjective hesitator. A hypothesis of why the proximal demonstrative may have been selected over other members of the demonstrative system is offered in Section 5.

2 Preliminaries

2.1 Demonstratives

One basic discourse function of demonstratives is to encode spatial deixis. That is, demonstratives are used to indicate the distance between speakers and a given entity. However, the emphasis of this study is not on the uses of demonstratives for reference to real or imagined entities or events present in space at the moment of utterance. Instead, this study focuses on the discourse functions of demonstratives. In discourse, demonstratives are referential expressions used primarily to coordinate the communicative interaction between interlocutors, rather than to indicate spatial distance (Himmelmann 1996). They make reference to individuals, events, facts or propositions. Demonstratives can also indicate a referent’s degree of accessibility and informational status (Ariel 1988; Givón 1983; Gundel et al. 1993). Another important function of demonstratives is to establish a joint focus of attention between interlocutors (Diessel 2006).

In discourse, demonstratives can hold the following functions: discourse deixis (6), referent tracking (7), identification (8), situational use (9), and recognitional use (10) (Diessel 1999; Himmelmann 1996).

destroza su asiento/y en este momento llega la vieja
‘she destroys her seat/and at this moment the old woman arrives’
se molestó con el jefe/malo era/este no sabía pagar
‘he got upset with the boss/he was bad/this one didn’t like to pay’
Este es el jergón
‘This is the lancehead’
Estaba tranquila ahí, y este hombre aparece de la nada
‘I was fine there, and this man shows up out of nowhere.’
cómo se llama pues/ este pájaro que vive en la palizada
‘what is its name/this bird who lives on the wood piled up at the bank of a river’

A demonstrative is employed for discourse deixis when it refers to a proposition, as in (6), where este refers back to ‘she destroys her seat.’ The referent tracking function involves contrast to another participant, a similar referent or a shift in focus of attention. That is, “demonstratives are used for tracking only if other tracking devices fail” (Himmelmann 1996: 227). Example (7) illustrates this use, where there are two participants – a worker and his boss. Ambiguity resolution between the two motivates the employment of a proximal demonstrative pronoun. The identification function illustrated in (8) is typical of copular constructions. The situational function applies when the referent is present in the utterance context. For example, if the husband of a speaker is present during an interview, and she says (9) pointing to her husband. Finally, in the recognitional use the referent is to be identified via specific shared knowledge between the interlocutors. For example, in (10), both speaker and hearer must know a specific bird, its behavior, and what a palizada is to be able to identify the referent of este. These contexts invite problems in establishing reference which is often accompanied by signs of hesitation (Himmelmann 1996). The hypothesis here is that the recognitional use helps to explain the emergence of the filler function in PAS.

Spanish demonstratives are grouped into three categories: proximal, medial, and distal. Demonstratives also carry gender and number inflection, as seen in Table 1.

Table 1:

Spanish demonstratives.

Masculine Femenine Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Proximal este estos esta estas esto estos
Medial ese esos esa esas eso esos
Distal aquel aquellos aquella aquellas aquello aquellos

In canonical Spanish, the feminine and masculine forms can function as modifiers in adnominal constructions, as seen in (1), and pronominal forms in pronominal constructions, as seen in (3). In these constructions, feminine and masculine demonstratives reproduce the gender traits of their anaphors. Neuter demonstratives differ from feminine and masculine demonstratives in some respects. Unlike the feminine and masculine forms, neuter forms do not participate in adnominal constructions. Also, neuter demonstratives can refer to diverse notions, but generally inanimate entities, especially when the speaker is not sure of their identity (RAE 2009: 1308). The entity can be concrete or abstract. Finally, neuter forms are used to make reference to entire propositions. An important point to keep in mind is that non-neuter forms can refer to a person, an animal or a thing; this may have favored the selection of a non-neuter form for the filler function (see discussion in Section 5).

However, the frequency of use of the demonstratives listed in Table 1 varies according to form, region, and language modality (oral versus written). Figure 1, from Shin and Vallejos-Yopán (2023) presents the frequency of each singular demonstrative, normalized for every million words (cpm) in the Corpus of XXI Century Spanish (CORPES).[1] Note that the distal demonstratives aquel, aquella, aquello were combined given their overall low frequency.[2] This finding has led some scholars to propose that the system might no longer be tripartite but bipartite with respect to spatial distance. For example, in oral data from Spain, Zulaica Hernández (2012) found that aquel represented only 4% of all the demonstratives, while este and ese represented 57% and 38%, respectively.

Figure 1: 
Frequency of demonstratives in CORPES (Shin and Vallejos-Yopán 2023: 249).
Figure 1:

Frequency of demonstratives in CORPES (Shin and Vallejos-Yopán 2023: 249).

In general, the use of demonstratives is more frequent in oral data than in written data, with the exception of distal ones, which are more frequent in written data. This marked difference in the use of demonstratives in the modalities may be due to several factors. In communicative interaction, the range of functions of demonstratives is broader. Beyond the prototypical functions such as anaphoric and cataphoric deixis, demonstratives are frequently used to make exophoric reference to elements in the extralinguistic context, such as pointers to attract the interlocutor’s attention to a referent, and as will be discussed in Section 3, as placeholders or hesitators. The distribution of forms in Figure 1 also shows some differences between countries. Note, for example, the minimal use of distal forms in Peruvian varieties (59 examples, 0.4% of all demonstratives in oral data from Peru). Another notable detail of relevance to this paper is the frequent use of este in the oral data of Latin American countries compared to those of Spain. I return to this point in Section 4.1.

2.2 Fillers

Crosslinguistically, spoken language is often accompanied by intra-turn pauses, sound stretches, false starts, repaired utterances, repetitions, self-addressed questions, fillers, etc. The use of fillers is motivated by constraints in cognitive processes, such as difficulty in remembering an appropriate lexical item or articulating ideas during the course of utterance production (Hayashi and Yoon 2006). Given that patterns of conversations are highly conventionalized, strategies employed in the context of conversational interaction arise from shared conventions of language use (Bybee 2010; Schegloff 1979; Schegloff et al. 1977). In that sense, the use of fillers represents a conventionalized solution to the preference for progressivity in real-time human interaction (Fox 2010; Heritage 2007; Jasperson 2002). Fillers are common and frequent enough in real-time communication, and therefore they should receive analytic attention in their own. The present study is concerned with two types of fillers: placeholders and hesitators.

2.2.1 Placeholders

These fillers replace part of a syntactic structure. The fact that it is possible to identify the syntactic slot of the missing piece of information (for example, nominal elements, verbal elements, etc.) is a key feature of placeholders. In addition to having syntactic constraints, placeholders are also referential (Hayashi and Yoon 2006: 490). Speakers use placeholders when they have a specific entity in mind, and they are actively “searching” for the word (Schegloff 2013: 49). Expressions such as it’s on the tip of my tongue capture this situation, which is said to mean that we are sure we know something, such as a word or an expression, but that we cannot remember at the moment. Placeholders are also used for self-repair to correct the accuracy of misspoken words in real-time communication (Fox et al. 1996). It is more common for placeholders to substitute nominal constituents. As will be shown in Section 3, this is the case of este in PAS. In the database for this study, it substitutes nouns.

2.2.2 Hesitators

In contrast to placeholders, hesitators can appear anywhere during the course of an utterance in progress. In other words, they do not follow syntactic constraints and are distributionally free. Hesitators are nonreferential (Hayashi and Yoon 2010: 46), the speaker does not have something in mind. In situations of word-formulation delay, real-time communication does not tolerate long pauses (Fox 2010: 6). The natural response of a cooperative interlocutor to a speaker’s silence tends to be either volunteer information to fill the perceived pause or take the floor. In those contexts, hesitators are employed to indicate that the speaker’s turn has not finished and that she/he wishes to keep the floor. They give the brain an opportunity to decide on the next move while speaking.

Crosslinguistically, fillers are recruited from third-person pronouns, demonstrative pronouns, indefinite pronouns, or interrogative pronouns (Podlesskaya 2010: 12). Diessel (1999: 154) reports that in many languages, demonstratives are commonly used to deal with trouble recalling a word or selecting the best word to use to designate some entity during real-time interaction. Among demonstratives, distal demonstratives are a common source for fillers, such as the adnominal distal and the pronominal distal demonstratives in Japanese, but proximal demonstratives can also become fillers as in Mandarin (Hayashi and Yoon 2010: 37–39). This study demonstrates that it is the proximal masculine demonstrative that became a filler in PAS.

There are not many quantitative studies of fillers, but the few that exist show remarkable similarities in the frequency in which they occur across languages. This suggests that searching for words reflects universal mechanisms of speech production (Podlesskaya 2010: 12). Thus, the study of fillers contributes to our understanding of conventionalized ways to deal with disfluencies during real-time interaction.

The filler use of este in Latin America has not gone unnoticed in the literature. Kany (1969: 171) points out that filler-este abounds in conversational settings when the speaker hesitates, searching for the appropriate, “either because of poor vocabulary, or because he does not know what to say in an embarrassing situation” [translation mine]. Kany provides examples from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela. According to Martín Zorraquino and Portolés (1999: 4199), filler-este is a conversational metadiscourse marker whose main function is to indicate that the speaker is both searching for the appropriate expression as well as maintaining his turn to speak. Soler Arechalde (2008: 156) catalogs several uses of este in Mexico City and notes that this is a highly frequent marker among speakers of all sociocultural classes. Although these authors mention its demonstrative origin, there has been no attempt to explain the diachronic connection between the demonstrative and the filler. This is one of the main concerns of this paper.

3 Este in Amazonian Spanish

3.1 Local context

The Spanish variety explored here is spoken in Loreto, an Amazonian region of Peru. This region is home to the highest indigenous population in Peru (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática INEI 2017) and the highest linguistic diversity (∼30 languages, 8 families) in the country. However, the speakers of all these different languages combined make up only 3% of Peru’s total population. Given the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region, place of origin is an important variable in any study of Amazonian Spanish (Vallejos 2014; Vallejos et al. 2020). Broad categories such as “rural” and “urban” are not necessarily relevant to study the Spanish spoken in the region since each community has a unique shared history and specific sociolinguistic profile (Vallejos-Yopán 2022). Thus, attempting to make generalizations about “rural” or “indigenous” villages would be unwise. In the present study, I only analyze linguistic phenomena in the Spanish of monolinguals in Kukama villages, which share a distinctive profile (see Section 3.2), and then compare these findings to what I find in the city of Iquitos. Iquitos is the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon, which attracts migrants from different ethnic groups.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no previous studies of demonstratives in this variety of Spanish, besides my own work. Vallejos (2017) looked at the overall distribution of demonstratives in spoken PAS called Conversaciones en Loreto. An examination of a total of 1,390 demonstratives in a sample of natural conversations found zero tokens of aquel, aquella, aquello. This finding suggests that the demonstrative system in PAS might be different than canonical Spanish. As seen in Table 1, above, the canonical system of Spanish demonstratives is characterized as tripartite with respect to spatial distance (proximal, medial and distal); in PAS, however, distal forms are no longer used.

Another finding reported in Vallejos (2017) is that within the proximal category (este, esta, and esto, n = 415), there was an extremely high number of masculine tokens (n = 369/415) compared to their feminine (n = 30/415) and neuter (n = 16/415) counterparts. However, only 17% of este tokens (64/369) were used as demonstratives, 83% of them (305/369) were used as fillers, which is almost a 5:1 ratio in favor of the filler over the demonstrative uses. It was also noticed that este in the filler function seems to display phonetic and prosodic properties that sets it apart from este in the demonstrative function. Building on these previous findings, this study focuses solely in the demonstrative este.

In the next subsection, the focus shifts to the participants, the data and the coding system employed in this study.

3.2 Participants

To explore the research questions stated above, the speech of eight monolingual PAS speakers was examined. The data comes from my corpus of Amazonian Spanish, which at present consists of about 40 h of unscripted interviews collected from a total of 52 speakers. The interviews selected for this study were conducted between 2011 and 2015. The first topic of the conversation was introduced by the interviewer (e.g., main events taking place, their high school/college experience, preferred activities, etc.), after which the participants took the lead for the most part. The total duration of the selected interviews ranges from 50 to 65 min. The interviews took place in rural villages and the city of Iquitos (see more details, below). The sound was collected using a solid field recorder (Marantz PMD660) and a condenser omnidirectional lavalier microphone (AT803). Interviews were transcribed into intonation units using the Transcriber software.

For the present study, I have constructed a balanced sample in terms of place of origin, gender, age, and occupation of the interviewees.[3] The demographic background of the speakers is shown in Table 2.

Table 2:

Participants of the study.

Speaker Place Gender Age Occupation
1 Village F 21 College student
2 Village F 45 Fishmonger
3 Village M 21 College student
4 Village M 35 Farmer
5 City F 35 Beauty consultant
6 City F 43 Teacher
7 City M 39 Public worker
8 City M 41 Self-employed

The sample is balanced in terms of place (village = 4, city = 4), and gender (female = 4, male = 4). The age of the speakers ranges from 21 to 43.[4] The participants have various occupations, and in terms of formal education, all the speakers have had access to more than 10 years of schooling.

The first group of speakers are from three Kukama villages located along the Samiria and Marañón River, around 20 h away from Iquitos traveling by boat. In these villages, community members shifted to Spanish about five decades ago. Some participants in this study know Kukama words and phrases; nonetheless, they do not self-identity as bilingual. The Kukama villages in this study have access to radio, but very limited access to television or the internet. The villages offer primary education (K–6) and secondary education (7–11). The Kukamas travel regularly from villages located along navigable rivers to other cities in the vicinity.

The second group of speakers are from Iquitos. Iquitos is the biggest city in the Amazon of Peru with a total population of 160,497 (INEI 2017). The city is surrounded by suburban districts such as Belen, Punchana, and San Juan.[5] In Iquitos, 85% of the population declared to have learned to speak in Spanish (INEI 2017), and although Iquitos attracts immigrants from rural villages, only 0.2% declared knowing another local language.[6] Usually, young people from rural villages come to work and study in Iquitos. Data from Kukama villages will henceforth be referred to as Village PAS and Iquitos as City PAS.

3.3 Data and coding

All instances of este were manually extracted from the corpus of unscripted interviews which resulted in a total of 219 tokens. The tokens were coded by the constructions in which they appear and their position within the intonation units. A phonetic analysis of each token was also performed. The details of the coding are explained below. The data for this study is available in Open Science Framework (OSF), including values and z-scores at

3.3.1 Functions

All 219 tokens were coded by syntactic function into demonstratives and fillers. In PAS, demonstrative este shows up in prenominal position, as in (1), postnominal position, as in (2), and as a pronominal demonstrative, as in (3). Additional examples of each of the documented types are provided below. In the interviews selected for this study there were zero tokens of postnominal use.[7] Within the filler category, I distinguished between placeholders and interjective hesitators. Prenominal demonstrative

The example in (11) illustrates the prenominal use of este. The demonstrative in this instance, modifies the following noun niño ‘child.’ It should be noted that recurrent colocations in the corpus include este año ‘this year,’ and en este caso ‘in this case.’ These tokens were included in the study.

he notado todo eso de este niño
‘I have noticed all that about this child’ Pronominal demonstrative

In the conversations selected for this study there were only two tokens of este in pronominal use. One was given in (3), above, and the other in (12).

este de aquí sí se come
This one over here is edible’ Placeholder

The excerpt in (13) illustrates the use of the proximal este as a placeholder. An elementary school teacher is talking about how she created a good environment in her classroom, providing children with all kinds of materials. In line (13f), este is used as a sort of substitute for a word that the speaker experiences difficulty in coming up with. I translated it as ‘this thing’ to highlight the point that este here is a referential expression while the speaker engages in a word search, but it is not used to refer to an entity in the physical setting of the conversation, nor is it used to refer back to something previously mentioned. In other words, este is not used as a pointer to something in the context or anaphorically. Indeed, the speaker specifies the referent of este in the following intonation unit, bolitas ‘marbles’ (13g), which is mentioned for the first time in this conversation.

mi aula
‘My classroom’
siempre ha sido bien ambientada,
‘was always well decorated’
tenía mi sector de comunicación,
‘I had my area of language arts’
mi texto, mis libros de matemáticas porque
‘my textbooks, my math books because’
porque tenía mis chapas,
‘because I had my bottle caps’
mis este,
‘my this thing’
tenía semillas,
‘I had seeds’
tenía pegados mis ejercicios
‘I had my activities glued to the wall’

It is important to note that este in line (13f) cannot be interpreted as a pronominal demonstrative with cataphoric reference. In Spanish, pronominal demonstratives agree in number and gender with their referent. Bolitas ‘marbles’ is feminine and plural, the corresponding demonstrative would be estas. In contrast, placeholders apply to all referents irrespective of their number and gender, as in the example above. This could be one of the bridging contexts in the evolution of este from demonstrative to filler. I return to this hypothesis in Section 5. Interjective hesitator

In the following excerpt, the speaker is talking about her youth, when she had to leave her village to go to work in the city of Iquitos. She did not see her mother for about two years, and then one day she found her in the market, where her mom brought fish to sell. In lines (14e) and (14g), este is used as a way to buy some time until the speaker comes up with the next thing to say. This is a sort of “hesitation noise” analogous to the English hm, rather than a referential expression pointing to a particular referent the speaker has in mind.[8]

cuando yo tenía quince años siguiendo mis dieciséis
‘when I was fifteen, following my sixteen’
he venido a la ciudad de Iquitos a trabajar
‘I came to the city of Iquitos to work’
y de ahí ya uh
‘And then uh’
mi mamá y yo como de dos años
‘my mom and I after almost two year’s
mi mamá este
‘my mom hm’
nos hemos encontrado con mi mamá en Iquitos ya
‘we found each other, with my mom, in Iquitos’
cuando mi mamá este
‘when my mom, hm’
venía de San Pablo trayendo rapisheo de,
‘came from San Pablo bringing a portable cage’
de peje negro
‘of dark fish’

Categorizing all the tokens into fillers and demonstratives was a relatively easy task.[9] The reason, I argue here, is that fillers and demonstratives have different phonetic shapes. The next section focuses on the phonetic coding implemented to explore this issue.

3.3.2 Phonetic features

In Spanish, all content words and some function words have a stressed syllable. In this paper, stress is understood as the most prominent syllable in a word.[10] Pitch, duration and intensity are phonetic cues to lexical stress in Spanish; among those, duration is the strongest acoustic correlate of the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables (Ortega-Llebaria and Prieto 2011). The demonstrative este has contrastive lexical stress in the first syllable.[11]

As indicated above, a salient elongation of the final vowel of este was noticeable in some tokens. In order to explore this auditory impression regarding potential phonetic shape differences between filler este and demonstrative este, an acoustic analysis of the data was performed. All 219 tokens of este were manually segmented in Praat (Boersma and Weenink 2021). To explore whether lengthening is affecting the vowels, I identified each vowel and the consonant cluster, as shown in Table 3.[12] A Praat script written for this study returned the duration of the word, of each of the vowels, and the consonant cluster. The values were normalized using z-score transformation. To obtain the z-scores, I took the raw measurements, subtract the mean, and divide by the standard deviation. This was done for each speaker. The objective of this analysis was to develop and apply a method of quantifying any differences of este in the different functions.

Table 3:

Segmentation of este.

e st e
V1 C V2

3.3.3 Position in intonation units

Fillers tend to be surrounded by pauses. As result, their distribution within intonation units is more restricted than that of demonstratives (Hayashi and Yoon 2010). To examine if this hypothesis holds for PAS, the final parameter coded was the position of este within the intonation units. The values were initial, medial, final. Examples are provided below.

este de aquí sí se come          initial
this one over here is edible’
entonces hacen este fariña medial
‘then they make this thing, yucca flour’
cuando mi mamá este                 final
‘when my mom hm’

4 Results

This section provides the results of the quantitative analysis of the 219 tokens. 101 tokens were from interviews from the city and 118 from the village, that is, the distribution of tokens regarding the variable place is comparable. None of the social variables (gender, age, and place of origin) influence the use of este.

4.1 What is the distribution of este in terms of its main morphosyntactic functions?

The main finding regarding the functions of este is that this form is mostly used as filler. As shown in Figure 2, only 23% (50/219) of the tokens are used as proximal demonstratives, 28% (62/219) as placeholders, and 49% (107/219) as hesitators. In other words, the placeholder and hesitator functions account for 77% of the tokens. Hence, the primary function of este in PAS is not that of a demonstrative. A closer look at the demonstrative category reveals that most of the forms are in prenominal position, none of them occur as postnominal, and there are only 2 tokens in pronominal function.

Figure 2: 
Distribution of este by function and place.
Figure 2:

Distribution of este by function and place.

4.2 Do the different functions of este exhibit phonetic correlates?

To answer this question, I implemented three measurements: word length, consonant cluster length, and vowel duration. Recall that the values have been normalized, the box plots below represent z-scores. For the sake of completeness, I also provide the mean values in milliseconds after the z-scores.

The results for word length are given in Figure 3. Demonstratives are significantly shorter (z-score −0.66, 232 ms) than placeholders (z-score 0.26, 445 ms).[13] However, hesitators are not significantly different from placeholders (z-score 0.16, 420 ms).[14] The results for consonant clusters, given in Figure 4, point in the same direction. The /st/ cluster in demonstratives is significantly shorter (z-score −0.50, 124 ms) than in placeholders (z-score 0.21, 171 ms),[15] but there are not differences between /st/ in placeholders and hesitators (z-score 0.10, 167 ms).[16]

Figure 3: 
Word length by function.
Figure 3:

Word length by function.

Figure 4: 
/st/ length by function.
Figure 4:

/st/ length by function.

The duration of the vowels shows an interesting pattern, these are given in Figure 5. There are clear differences between demonstratives, on the one hand, and placeholders and hesitators, on the other hand. In the demonstrative category, the first vowel (z-score −0.29, 75 ms) is longer than the second vowel (z-score −0.74, 40 ms). In contrast, in the placeholder category, the first vowel (z-score 0.08, 83 ms) is shorter than the second vowel (z-score 0.19, 139 ms). The same configuration emerges in the hesitator category, the first vowel (z-score 0.09, 87 ms) is shorter than the second vowel (z-score 0.07, 143 ms). In addition, when we compare demonstratives with placeholders, the only significant difference between them is the second vowel. In other words, there is a significant difference between demonstratives and placeholders with respect to the second vowel,[17] but not with respect to the first vowel.[18] Within the filler category, there are not significant phonetic differences between placeholders and hesitators, neither with respect to the first vowel[19] or the second vowel.[20] In sum, the duration of the consonant cluster and the second vowel are the informative elements to distinguish demonstratives from fillers.

Figure 5: 
Vowel duration by function.
Figure 5:

Vowel duration by function.

A question to consider is whether the duration of the vowels in the demonstrative este is comparable with those in any other two-syllable word with penultimate stress in PAS. The mean values of the vowel in the demonstrative este display a similar pattern to those of two-syllable words in PAS (Koops and Vallejos 2018). Figure 6 highlights the similarities between PAS words, in the first two columns, and the demonstrative este, as well as the differences when compared with placeholders and hesitators.

Figure 6: 
‘este’ compared to other two-syllable words in PAS.
Figure 6:

este’ compared to other two-syllable words in PAS.

4.3 What is the distribution of este within intonation units?

There are some differences regarding the distribution of este within intonation units. The demonstrative este occurs primarily in medial position (74%, 37/50), and only rarely in final position (6%, 3/50). In contrast, the majority of the placeholders (52%, 32/62) and hesitators (54%, 59/109) appear in final position. This is summarized in Figure 7.

Figure 7: 
Position of este in intonation units.
Figure 7:

Position of este in intonation units.

4.4 Summary of findings

A corpus study shows that este has adopted two main roles in PAS: demonstrative and filler. Within the demonstrative category, este appears mostly as an adnominal modifier in prenominal position, and rarely as pronominal. Within the filler category, este is used as both placeholder and hesitator. Quantification of the distribution of usage of este reveals that its primary function is that of a filler. In fact, both placeholders and hesitators comprise 77% of the total number of tokens. A closer examination at their syntactic distribution and phonetic shape provides a fuller picture of the multiple roles of este in today’s PAS. These features are summarized in Table 4. For duration, I provide the z-scores followed by the mean value in milliseconds.

Table 4:

Summary of features of este in PAS.

demonstrative placeholder hesitator
Distribution Syntactic constraints Syntactic constraints Distributional freedom
Referentiality Referential Referential Loss of referentiality
Position in IU Medial 74% Final 52% Final 55%
Word duration −0.66 (232 ms) 0.26 (445 ms) 0.16 (420 ms)
/st/ duration −0.50 (124 ms) 0.21 (171 ms) 0.10 (167 ms)
V1 duration −0.29 (75 ms) 0.08 (83 ms) 0.09 (87 ms)
V2 duration −0.74 (40 ms) 0.19 (139 ms) 0.07 (143 ms)

Regarding their syntactic distribution, demonstratives and placeholders follow certain constraints. Demonstratives occupy an adnominal modifier position within a noun phrase or the slot of a noun or a noun phrase within a clause. Placeholders parallel the distribution of demonstratives in that they also occupy the slot of a noun while the speaker engages in word searches. In contrast, hesitators have distributional freedom. Likewise, demonstratives and placeholders are referential, they point to particular entities the speaker has in mind; hesitators are not referential. Demonstratives, placeholders and hesitators differ regarding the kinds of jobs they do, demonstratives are used mainly for anaphora, but also for cataphora. Placeholders are used to buy time while one comes up with a word, hesitators are used to deal with difficulties progressing in real-time interaction. As for their position within intonation units, demonstratives appear typically in medial position (74%), while placeholders and hesitators tend to occur in final position. While I did not code for pauses, the propensity for placeholders and hesitators to occur towards the end of intonation units implies they are frequently, but not always, followed by pauses.

Demonstratives also differ from fillers (placeholders and hesitators) in terms of their phonetic shape. Demonstratives are overall shorter than fillers, mainly due to the duration of the consonant cluster and the second vowel. The phonetic analysis shows that the filler este is characterized by a clear shape when compared to the demonstrative este, from which it evolved. In the demonstrative este, the first vowel of the word, the stressed one, is longer than the second vowel, the unstressed one. In contrast, the highly frequent filler is not only longer in duration overall but shows the opposite pattern with respect to vowel duration than its predecessor: the first vowel is shorter than the second vowel. Given that vowel length is a cue of stress in Spanish, this finding may have an effect in the perception of stress, or lack thereof, in filler este.

5 The path of development of este

Fillers are common elements in language, and they are almost indispensable and frequent in spontaneous interaction. Further, their frequency of occurrence seems comparable across languages. Thus, it is important to understand how these elements emerge, and whether they arise from a common source through known diachronic processes.

As indicated in Section 2.2, demonstratives are good sources for fillers. It is the pronominal forms of demonstratives, rather than the adnominal forms, that are used as placeholders in Japanese and Korean (Hayashi and Yoon 2010). Based on the synchronic distribution of este, as well as crosslinguistic studies of demonstratives, the proposal is that este has entered the following path of change: demonstrative > placeholder > interjective hesitator. According to Himmelmann (1996), demonstratives express special deixis, discourse deixis, and anaphora (see Section 2.1). The hypothesis here is that este in PAS has extended its use from anaphora to filler. The emergence of the placeholder function of este may have been facilitated by the pronominal use of este for recognitional purposes, as indicated in Figure 8.

Figure 8: 
The development of filler este from anaphoric uses.
Figure 8:

The development of filler este from anaphoric uses.

Demonstratives are used for spatial deixis, they indicate the physical proximity of referents to the speaker. According to Himmelman, however, in communicative interaction, demonstratives start to lose their deictic semantic content and start to acquire information status functions to point to semi-active, inactive referents. The discourse deictic function of demonstratives includes introducing propositions and events, and appears to be the transitional use from spatial deixis to anaphoric function (Himmelmann 1996: 224).

The relevant function for the emergence of filler este is the anaphoric function of pronominal demonstratives. Demonstratives are used to track referents. The tracking use essentially describes semi-active referents—referents mentioned before but not recently or prominently enough to retain active information status in the discourse context. One scenario for the emergence of the filler use could be the pronominal use with cataphoric reference, if the identity of este is specified in the following discourse. For example, in a sequence like (18) este is a pronominal demonstrative whose referent, Miguel, is specified cataphorically.

este que vive arriba/Miguel
This one who lives upstairs/Miguel’

If there is no specification of the referent, as in (19), este could be ambiguous between pronominal or placeholder. This is an example of recognitional use, in which the demonstrative’s referent is identifiable due to the speaker and hearer’s shared knowledge. They both know the person that lives upstairs.

A: este que vive arriba me vió
This one who lives upstairs saw me’

In the recognitional use, the demonstrative helps bring the attention of the listener to a specific referent (Diessel 1999), but it can also signal that the speaker is unsure that the listener remembers the referent (Himmelmann 1996: 230). For example, if the interlocutor fails to establish the referent of este in (19), a natural exchange that would be the one in (20):

B: ¿Quién vive arriba?
‘Who lives up there?
A: este pues/¿no te acuerdas?
This one/don’t you remember?

Thus, the recognitional use is closely related to problems in establishing reference, and is often accompanied by hesitation, repetition, and reformulation (Himmelmann 1996: 230). The repetition of este ‘this one’ in this context seems natural. This path of development entails extending the use of este from pointing to entities in space, entities presented in prior discourse, or those to be specified cataphorically, to indicate issues with lexical retrieval. Next, the form employed as a placeholder becomes invariant, it no longer holds gender or number agreement with the referent. Truncated placeholders over time become signs of hesitation and loose referentiality, thus becoming interjective hesitators.

Crosslinguistic evidence shows that both distal and proximal can be used as fillers. For example, in Japanese and Korean, only distal demonstratives take this function while in Mandarin both proximal and distal demonstratives are used as placeholders (Hayashi and Yoon 2010: 39). In PAS, only the masculine proximal has evolved into a placeholder and interjective hesitator. None of the other members of the set exhibit this behavior. Why would the proximal demonstrative take on this role? One hypothesis is the notion of relevance in discourse. Proximal forms in Spanish indicate that evoked referents have temporal relevance in the discourse context (Zulaica Hernandez 2017). Neuter forms (esto/eso) make anaphoric reference to propositions, and este as a filler stands for lexical items, not propositions. Neuter demonstratives are not usually used to refer to animals or humans, unless one wants to refer to them in an offensive way. Thus, while the expression este que está aquí ‘this one that is here’ can refer to a person, an animal or a thing, the expression esto que esta aquí ‘this one that is here’ is automatically interpreted as an inanimate entity. If I am correct that the demonstrative became a placeholder first, este was a better candidate than esto because it can serve as placeholder for a wider range of entities.

Is this a case of grammaticalization? Grammaticalization is the set of historical processes by which lexical and function words evolve into grammatical morphemes. Given that fillers are not grammatical morphemes in a strict sense – filler-este does not exhibit closed-class membership or paradigmaticity – the answer would be no. In other words, this is not a case of grammaticalization comparable to the evolution of demonstratives into articles, complementizers, or noun class markers. A more interesting question, though, is to what extent fillers develop in the same way as prototypical grammatical morphemes. Lehmann (1995) and Hopper and Traugott (1993), among several others, are explicit in listing the various low-level changes that are associated with grammaticalization, such as phonological erosion, de-semanticization, reanalysis, and decategorialization. The phenomenon studied here seems to encompass decategorialization (Bybee 2015: 129; Hopper 1991: 30). An item becomes decategorized if it loses discourse autonomy and it becomes disconnected from instances of the same element in other contexts, that is, it no longer occupies a cell in a paradigm. In the case of filler-este, it loses the morphosyntactic properties of a demonstrative, such as number and gender inflection and it is no longer referential and/or expresses spatial deixis. These all point to decategorialization. The evolution of the hesitator from placeholder involves some sort of category expansion. While placeholders are syntactically restricted to occur in nominal positions and occur mostly at the end of intonation units, hesitators are distributionally free within the clause and within intonation units. The formal side, however, does not align with grammaticalization. Grammaticalization involves some type of phonetic reduction. In the case reported here, we observe the opposite. For example, the overall duration of fillers is longer than that of demonstratives. However, more nuanced gestural analysis that may point to types of reduction remains to be examined. Also, although the second vowel of the filler-este is significantly longer than that of the demonstrative este, we would need to examine how they pattern with respect to intensity to assess potential stress shift.

Is this a case of pragmaticalization? Pragmaticalization is a process in which a content word acquires a new grammatical function in pragmatic or morphosyntactic contexts (Traugott 1995). This process is different from classical grammaticalization in that it leads to discourse and pragmatic markers, elements that “organize, structure, and contextualize discourse with respect to discourse-pragmatic concerns and not with respect to sentence-grammatical concerns” (Günthner and Mutz 2004: 98). If discourse or pragmatic markers are removed from an utterance, the grammaticality of the utterance is intact and the semantic relationship between the elements they connect remain the same (Fuller 2003: 186). In PAS, fillers can be removed from the utterance without consequences, and a semantic relationship between elements seems never at play. However, filler-este is not becoming a discourse marker. Discourse markers “represent content morphemes at the discourse level, but not at the sentence level” (Goss and Salmons 2000: 482). An example of a discourse marker in Spanish is o sea, which has connective and epistemic uses.[21] Filler-este has a pragmatic function, analogous to what is observed in Japanese and Korean. In these languages, hesitator demonstratives have evolved into pragmatic markers used to monitor the flow of the production of utterances in spontaneous spoken language use. This study demonstrates that, in PAS, filler-este is a “turn holding” device, it indicates an “active pursuit of a return to progressivity” (Fox 2010: 6).

6 Closing remarks

Progressivity is a universal interactional preference (Fox 2010; Schegloff 1979). Thus, every language has strategies to deal with real-time communication difficulties. Fillers are a conventionalized strategy to deal with delays in lexical retrieval and speech planning during the course of utterance production (Fox 2010: 2). This study deals with two types of fillers, placeholders and hesitators, and by doing so it contributes to our understanding of the syntax of real-time interaction.

An emphasis on usage, processes, and mechanisms of change, such as the one I assume in this study, allows us to explain the emergence of both recurrent patterns, but also typological rarities. Whether the evolution from demonstratives to fillers represents a recurring pathway of language change or not is an empirical question. There are not yet enough studies to make strong claims but, based on the available data, the phenomenon under examination seems a recurrent pattern. This study provides further evidence that demonstratives are good sources for fillers. The claim here is that, in PAS, the path followed is demonstrative > placeholder > hesitator.

Another issue is whether filler (placeholder and/or hesitator) is a subtype function of demonstrative or belongs to a category on its own (Hayashi and Yoon 2010: 58). In PAS, the expansion of the demonstrative into new functional domains is clear, este has evolved into a different element. The usage type that triggers the filler function has functional affinity with recognitional uses of demonstratives (Himmelmann 1996), but fillers are not a subtype of demonstratives. While demonstratives and placeholders share some features – for example, they both participate in the syntactic structure of the clause – they each have their own functions. Placeholders indicate difficulty in accessing an appropriate lexical item, they behave as constituents occupying specific syntactic slots. Often, placeholders are subsequently replaced by specific lexical items if they become available to the speaker after a word search. Hesitators do not follow syntactic constraints; they can be inserted freely in the clause delaying the production of an utterance under construction. Placeholders and hesitators are key in turn-taking, they signal that a turn has not yet finished, and that speaker wishes to keep the floor.

A final point made here is that the proximal demonstrative este and the filler este are diachronically connected, but synchronically they are different elements. They have different phonetic shapes, the consonant cluster and the second vowel having more robust roles in differentiating them. It appears that since keeping forms apart facilitates language processing, adding prominence to a lexically unstressed syllable serves the purpose of differentiating both forms. A question to explore in future studies is whether there is a shift of lexical stress in fillers, or whether the acoustic correlates of stress have been redistributed or faded away.

Corresponding author: Rosa Vallejos-Yopán, Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico, Humanities 526, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA, E-mail:

Funding source: University of New Mexico’s Office of Research


My deepest gratitude goes to each of the speakers of Amazonian Spanish in the villages and in Iquitos who have contributed to this study. Thank you to Richard File-Muriel, Françoise Rose, Joseline Segovia, the audience at HLS 2019, and two anonymous reviewers for discussion and comments that helped improve the paper. Any remaining errors are fully my own. Fieldwork for this study was supported by a grant from the University of New Mexico’s Research Allocation Committee and the Latin American and Iberian Institute.

  1. Data availability statement: The linguistic data on which this study is based is archived as “Dataset: Fillers in Amazonian Spanish” with Open Science Framework (OSF, 20 March 2023;


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Received: 2021-08-05
Accepted: 2022-06-03
Published Online: 2023-04-10
Published in Print: 2023-05-25

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

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