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Linguistic Typology

Editor-in-Chief: Plank, Frans / Koptjevskaja-Tamm, Maria

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Volume 12, Issue 1 (Jan 2008)


Spatial coordinate systems in demonstrative meaning

Niclas Burenhult
Published Online: 2008-07-11 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/LITY.2008.033


Exploring the semantic encoding of a group of crosslinguistically uncommon “spatial-coordinate demonstratives”, this work establishes the existence of demonstratives whose function is to project angular search domains, thus invoking proper coordinate systems (or “frames of reference”). What is special about these distinctions is that they rely on a spatial asymmetry in relativizing a demonstrative referent (representing the Figure) to the deictic center (representing the Ground). A semantic typology of such demonstratives is constructed based on the nature of the asymmetries they employ. A major distinction is proposed between asymmetries outside the deictic Figure-Ground array (e.g., features of the larger environment) and those within it (e.g., facets of the speaker/addressee dyad). A unique system of the latter type, present in Jahai, an Aslian (Mon-Khmer) language spoken by groups of hunter-gatherers in the Malay Peninsula, is introduced and explored in detail using elicited data as well as natural conversational data captured on video. Although crosslinguistically unusual, spatial-coordinate demonstratives sit at the interface of issues central to current discourse in semantic-pragmatic theory: demonstrative function, deictic layout, and spatial frames of reference.

Keywords:: deixis; demonstratives; figure-ground; frame of reference; Jahai; semantic typology; space

About the article

Correspondence address: Language and Cognition Group, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, P.O. Box 310, 6500 AH Nijmegen, The Netherlands; e-mail:

Received: 2007-06-27

Revised: 2007-09-19

Published Online: 2008-07-11

Published in Print: 2008-06-01

Citation Information: Linguistic Typology, ISSN (Online) 1613-415X, ISSN (Print) 1430-0532, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/LITY.2008.033.

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