The semantics of spatial demonstratives

AbstractSpatial demonstratives (words like "this" and "that") are thought to primarily be used for carving up space into a peripersonal and extrapersonal domain. However, when given a noun out of context and asked to couple it with a demonstrative, speakers tend to use this for manipulable objects (small, harmless, inanimate), while non-manipulable objects (large, harmful, animate) are more likely to be coupled with that. Here, we extend these findings and map demonstrative use along a wide spectrum of semantic features. We conducted a large-scale (N = 2197) experiment eliciting demonstratives for 506 words, rated across 65+11 perceptually and cognitively relevant semantic dimensions. We replicated the findings that demonstrative choice is influenced by object manipulability. Demonstrative choice was additionally found to be related to a set of semantic factors, including valence, arousal, loudness, motion, time and more generally, the self. Importantly, demonstrative choices were highly structured across participants, as shown by a strong correlation detected in a split-sample comparison of by-word demonstrative distribution.

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