'Proximal' and 'distal' in language and cognition: Evidence from deictic demonstratives in Dutch

Piwek, Paul; Beun, Robbert-Jan and Cremers, Anita (2008). 'Proximal' and 'distal' in language and cognition: Evidence from deictic demonstratives in Dutch. Journal of Pragmatics, 40(4) pp. 694–718.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2007.05.001


In this paper we examine the differences in use between distal and proximal demonstrative terms (e.g., singular '�this�' and '�that�', and plural '�these�' and '�those�' in English). The proximal–distal distinction appears to be made in all languages and therefore promises to be an important window on the cognitive mechanisms underlying language production and comprehension. We address the problem of accounting for the distinction through a corpus-based quantitative study of the deictic use of demonstratives in Dutch. Our study suggests that the distal–proximal distinction corresponds with use of the proximal for intensive/strong indicating (i.e., directing of attention) and the distal for neutral indicating. We compare our findings with empirical findings on the use of English demonstratives and argue that, despite some apparent differences, Dutch and English demonstratives behave roughly similarly though not identically. Finally, we put our findings into context by pulling together evidence from a number of converging sources on the relationship between indicating and describing as alternative modes of reference in the use of distal and proximal demonstratives. This will also lead us to a new understanding of the folk-view on distals and proximals as distinguishing between nearby and faraway objects.

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