When does “this” become “that”?

Earlier this week, beloved internet nerd Hank Green posted a tweet expressing his frustration about not understanding the relationship between what/that, where/there and when/then. The actual answer to the question is incredibly fascinating and is summed up brilliantly in this short video by Jess Zafarris.

But I am not here to try and take credit for this answer or to expand on it further, I want to take a minute to talk more about the relationship between “this” and “that”.

As Jess pointed out in the video, “this” and “that” are demonstratives that we have in English that are used to locate things in space. But when exactly does “this” become “that”? “This” is usually reserved for things that are in our grasp or are comparatively closer to us than “that”. For instance, if you were holding a pen, you could easily say “This pen is quite reliable” but it would be weird to talk about the same pen you are holding and say “That pen is quite reliable”.

If there were two pens on a table, you could pick up one of them and easily talk about “this” pen that you are holding versus “that” pen which you are not holding. But as we know, the concept of “that” is not as spatially confined as “this” is. We can talk about a “that” that isn’t even in the same room.

If you find a pen on a table that writes significantly better than your friend’s favorite pen he keeps at home, you could probably pick it up and say to them “this pen is so much better than that pen.” And your stationary obsessed friend would probably be able to figure it out. You may need to provide them with a few more specifics, but the point here is that “that” does not have to be within your eyesight. “That” could be anywhere other than here, and it is always going to be comparatively farther away than “this”.

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Now what about this scenario. You walk into a room and there are two pens on the table. One of these pens writes significantly better than the other, but you know that your friend has an incredible fountain pen at home that makes both of these pens look like utter trash. You turn to your friend and say “This pen is much better than that pen, but that other pen you have is the best”. This is a perfectly acceptable and understandable statement, but wouldn’t it just feel so much better if we had a nice way to talk about “that’s” that are likely really far away as opposed to “that’s” that are here, but are not “this”.

This is where we get into the concept of deixis. Deixis is the use of words and phrases to refer to a specific place, time, or person in context. The demonstrative words “this” and “that” can both be used to locate things in space meaning that they are also deictic words. When you are speaking to someone else, you usually use yourself as a default centre point for these words which is how we get this distinction where “this” is closer to you than “that”.

So the concept of “this” is a proximal deictic word, meaning close in proximity to the centre while “that” is a distal deictic word meaning it is further away from the centre. This is a deictic system that all natural languages have to some degree (at least based on the evidence we have). In addition to spatial terms, deixis can also help us differentiate between “now” and “then”, and it can even give us a three way contrast in English between “you”, “me”, and “them”, but in English we seem to be confined to just a “this” and “that” contrast for spatial location.

I say confined here because there are actually languages that go above and beyond in their spatial location capabilities. A language like Korean for instance has a three-way distinction on spatial reference much like we have a three-way distinction on personal pronouns. In Korean, you can use the word yogi to talk about something that is near the speaker, kugi to talk about something near the listener, and chogi to talk about something that is far away from both the speaker and the listener.

Japanese also has this same pattern with the words koko, soko, and asoko, while Tamil uses the words inge, unge,and ange to express the same thing. This pattern also shows up in Thai, Filipino, Macedonian, Yaqui, Turkish, and many more languages so it is certainly not a rare or obscure possibility, it is just something that we English speakers don’t have the ability to take advantage of.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Moving away from “this” and “that”, let’s talk a little bit about the temporal aspect of deixis. In English, we have a similar two-tiered system that we use to talk about the proximal “now” versus the distal “then”.

The thing about “then” is that it is slightly ambiguous in terms of which “then” we are talking about. Are we talking about the “then” that just happened now? Are we talking about the “then” from a few days ago? Or are we talking about the “then” that is going to happen at some point in the future.

And here we have another shortcoming of English. Like the spatial terms, this is not an insurmountable shortcoming, we just have to do some extra work to differentiate between all of these “then’s”. But like the spatial stuff, there are languages that do a much better job than English of differentiating between “yesterday”, “the day before yesterday” and “that one Tuesday six months ago” (okay, maybe not that specific, but let me explain a bit more).

Take the language Zulu, a Bantu language spoken primarily in South Africa. In Zulu, you can make the distinction between the recent past tense and the remote past tense just by changing up the suffix on the word and altering the initial vowel (Bantu languages love to change many things in different places to accomplish one thing. I promise this is just one thing). For instance, sihambile in Zulu means “we went” (phrases in Zulu are expressed by a single word), but it has a recent sense of time. Compare this to sāhamba, which also means “we went”, but it was further in the past than the first example.

Now, let’s just imagine a scenario. Let’s say you are out with your friends on Monday July 26th, 2021, and you are having so much fun that you want to try and get together again on Saturday August 7th, 2021. You could say to your friends “Hey, we should hang out again next weekend”, and it would likely start some debate about “Wait, do you mean this next weekend beginning in five days? Or do you mean the one twelve days from now?”.

And again, this is another shortcoming of English that it turns out Zulu does not have! Like it’s past tense, Zulu can make a difference between recent future tense and remote future tense, but it is incredibly subtle and not in the place you would expect. Zulu changes something in the middle of the word to achieve this effect. Let’s walk through an example and you can see what I mean.

The word Ngizokuza translates to the phrase “I will come”, but this is going to happen before Ngiyokuza, which also means “I will come”. Simply by changing a zu to a yo in the middle of the word, Zulu speakers are able to easily differentiate between a near future and a more distant future.

Now I am not here to say that we all need to go out and learn Zulu to make plans with our friends in a more accurate way, I am just trying to show off all the cool and interesting systems that languages of the world have. English is a serviceable language for sure. If it wasn’t, we would have abandoned it long ago. I just think that learning a little bit more about how other languages handle things like this is incredibly interesting, and that’s why I love this field so much.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out to me at talkinglinguist@gmail.com and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.