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The semantics of spatial demonstratives in Spanish: a Demonstrative Choice Task study

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Demonstratives (this/that in English) are pivotal in communication. In this study, we show that semantic features of referents systematically influence speakers’ choices of demonstrative forms for Spanish nouns in the absence of a guiding context. We used the Demonstrative Choice Task (DCT), previously applied to two-term demonstrative languages (Danish, English, and Italian), and applied it to Spanish, a three-term demonstrative system (este/ese/aquel), to test if the semantic dimensions driving demonstrative choice overlap with those found for English. 1,639 native Spanish speakers were presented with 480 nouns rated along 76 semantic features and were asked to match each noun with a demonstrative. We found that demonstratives are influenced by the same semantic factors as two-term languages, such as manipulability, valence, and the self. In Spanish, these semantic factors predict the demonstrative choice between the proximal este/a and a combination of medial and distal forms ese/a and aquel/la. Additional semantic factors affect speakers’ preferences for ese/a versus aquel/a (e.g., visuality and time). We conclude that many of the semantic attractors influencing the choice of demonstratives are constant across languages, independent of the number of terms characterizing the demonstrative system, and provide a window into the landscape of meaning subserving linguistic reference.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLanguage and Cognition
Pages (from-to)503-533
Number of pages31
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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