Languages around the world have words for ‘this’ and ‘that’, study finds

A number of languages across the world have words for “this” and “that”, according to a new study.

Researchers studied more than 1,000 speakers of 29 different languages to see how they use demonstratives – words that show where something is in relation to a person talking, such as “this cat” or “that dog”.

The new study, led by the University of East Anglia (UEA), found that all of the languages tested make the same spatial distinctions using the words based on whether the objects being spoken about can be reached.

In the past, it had been thought that languages vary in the spatial distinctions they make – and therefore that people may think in fundamentally different ways.

Lead researcher Professor Kenny Coventry, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “There are over 7,000 diverse languages spoken across the world.

“We wanted to find out how speakers of a wide range of languages use the oldest recorded words in all of language – spatial demonstratives, such as ‘this’ or ‘that’.”

The researchers studied 29 languages from around the world including English, Spanish, Norwegian, Japanese, Mandarin, Tzeltal and Telugu.

More than 1,000 speakers were tested to see how demonstratives were used in their language to describe where objects were.

Prof Coventry said: “We found that in all the languages we tested, there is a word for objects that are within reach of the speaker, like ‘this’ in English, and a word for objects out of reach – ‘that’.”

He added: “This distinction may explain the early evolutionary origin of demonstratives as linguistic forms.”

The research, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was led by UEA in collaboration with researchers at 32 other international institutions including Friedrich-Schiller-Universitat Jena, Germany, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Aarhus University, Denmark and the University of Buffalo, USA.