Most languages contrast demonstrative in a "here/there/over there" distance system, with two to five grades (with some referring to the hearer's location too). I'm looking for a different concept for demonstrative contrast.

Does anyone have suggestions for me?


As the linked WALS chapter already mentions, a common distinction is to contrast near speaker/near listener/distal rather than a simple distance constrast.

One way to make such as system more "interesting" can be to add additional usages or shades of meaning to the different demonstratives, for example having one be a neutral term and the other one that is only used when specific focus on the distance is desired, or alternatively having a neutral demonstrative in addition to ones overtly marked for distance (the WALS chapter again already has examples of this, mentioning modern Hebrew and Lithuanian respectively). Korafe (TNG, Oro Province PNG) has a 3 demonstratives e, a, o in a speaker/listener/distal system which additionally serve the function of showing emontional evolvement of the speaker in utterance, with a "near listener" being the neutral default, e "near speaker" showing a great deal of involvement and o "distal" showing a desire of the speaker to distance and dissociate him/herself from the utterance1 pp.75-77.

Variables may be paradigmatically overlaid on top of a distance system, e.g. a visibility contrast as seen in Malagasy(Astronesian, Madagascar)2, or may supplement it, for example by having a 3-way proximal/distal/non-visible contrast. Other contrasts than visibility are possible, for example in Fore(TNG, Eastern Higlands Province PNG), which has a 5-way speaker/listener/proximal/medial/distal system, with proximal and distal further exhibiting a 3-way same level/above/below vertical relationship, for a total of 9 different demonstratives1.

Other than overlaying various such contrasts on a system there is also the possibility of instead having a large set of what may be called "positional stems", whith relatively specific semantics such as "up above", "on the beach" or "towards the Siberian mainland" which can then either be used as or derived into demonstratives. The various Yup'ik languages(Eskaleut, Bering Sea area) are an example of languages with a lot of these, and using various specialised and general nominal morphology allows forming demonstrative pronouns and adverbs with meanings such as "the ones up there" or "from the two entities upstairs/on the mountain", though I think there is a fair bit of variation in the actual meaning of the different stems between the different lects and langs. Section III.4 of this document covers them summarily as they are used in Gambell, St. Lawrence Island.

A somewhat similar in result but structureally different approach to this is exemplified by Nasioi(South Bougainville, Bougainville Province PNG), which rather than have a large inventory of deictic stems and a limited set of affixes instead has just one demonstrative stem a~e from which a large number of directional, as well as some nominalising and oblique affixes may derive different demonstratives such as a-un-toom-peto DEM-NOM-down.north-near.movement_toward"that down there, closer, ascending towards us from the north" or e-eʔ-dan-to DEM-INSTR-seaward-far "by going seaward far away (from us)"1.

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    An interesting extension of the visibility contrast is also found in Yup‘ik languages, where a distinction is made between objects taking up a large amount of ones field of view or are in visible motion versus rather small, stationary objects. – Adarain Feb 9 '18 at 12:58

I can imagine a system that is based on size/importance instead of one based on near me/near you/distant. In this system, one demonstrative would point to the larger, more massive, more important, less recently introduced etc., another would point to the smaller, less massive, less important, more recently introduced target. Various degrees of intermediates could be thought of between these two extremes (but I think just one intermediate would be the most obvious choice.

More practical examples:

  • Two people talking about cars on a road. In a this/that system, one might say:

    I like that huge car.

    while pointing at one. In the system I’m imagining, that would turn into:

    I like [Demonstrative-important] car.

    without the need to point a finger. It would immediately imply the largest car to be seen.

  • A discussion about which colour a dress should be. A blue one was introduced first, a red one second and now we are looking at a green one.

    I like [Demonstrative-intermediate] best.

    Even though we may be looking at the green one and without turning any heads it would be clear that red is preferred. My train of thoughts here is that the first introduced object has been sitting around for a while in the discussion and thus acquired some sort of importance of the elder.

  • It can even easily be applied to people. Depending on what the culture of your conlang values, I can imagine both mere height or age/respect factoring into the decision which one of two people would get the important demonstrative. In Japan, if the choice is between the young, tiny professor and the older, larger secretary, the professor would probably be labelled with [demonstrative-important]. But going by age or size alone may make more sense in other cultures.

  • An interesting feature when applying it to people is that the demonstrative would change depending on who is a potential target. Comparing a teacher to their students would mean they receive [demonstrative-important]. However, if the headmaster is part of the group being talked about, the same teacher would suddenly be [demonstrative-intermediate] or [demonstrative-unimportant].

Of course, many more examples are possible.

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