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Review of  Spatial Demonstratives in English and Chinese

Reviewer: Ring Mei Han Low
Book Title: Spatial Demonstratives in English and Chinese
Book Author: Yi’an Wu
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 16.1739

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Date: Thu, 02 Jun 2005 18:05:50 -0400
From: Ring Low
Subject: Spatial Demonstratives in English and Chinese: Text and Cognition

AUTHOR: Wu, Yi'an
TITLE: Spatial Demonstratives in English and Chinese
SUBTITLE: Text and Cognition
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 126
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins

Ring Mei-Han Low, Department of Linguistics, University at Buffalo, State
University at New York


Using the method of discourse analysis, Wu in this book offers a detailed
comparison between the uses of English spatial demonstratives (this, that;
here, there) and those of their counterparts in Mandarin Chinese (zhe, na;
zheli, nali). In a well-organized manner, Wu meticulously describes her
results and observations of the study of two sets of discourse data, one
from an experimental procedural task, and another from two pieces of
narrative discourse (Winnie-The-Pooh and Baohulu de Mimi) with their
respective Chinese and English translations.

Besides the similarities and differences between the two languages' uses
of spatial demonstratives, a major finding reported by Wu in this book is
that the non-proximal demonstratives in both languages (that and there in
English and na in Chinese), when compared to the proximal ones (this and
here in English, and zhe in Chinese) are more prone to semantic
reinterpretation and have developed a greater variety of extended uses
(e.g., uses in which the basic deictic meaning of the demonstrative has
lost). Wu proposes that this phenomenon, along with other asymmetrical
patterns between proximal and non-proximal demonstratives reported in the
study, can be explained in terms of a cognitive notion she calls "deictic
force". The strength of the "deictic force" (p.51), which is supposed to
exist abstractly between the "deictic center" (i.e., the perspective or
the "ego" center) and the referent denoted with the demonstrative (p.99),
may affect how and to what extent a demonstrative would develop its
variety of uses in displaced contexts.

In this review, I will first give a synopsis summarize individual
chapters, before providing a general evaluation of the book.


Chapter 1
The first chapter of this book is the introductory chapter that lays out
the background materials of Wu's investigation. It first states the
book's objectives, which are firstly, to provide a systematic comparative
analysis of two sets of spatial demonstratives in English and in Chinese
(i.e., in English: this, these, here vs. that, those, there; and in
Chinese: zhe and zheli vs. na and nali), and secondly, to explain the
various patterns found in the analysis through a "cognitive-linguistic
framework" with the notion of "deictic force" (p.2).

Besides the objectives and the scope of the study, Wu in this chapter
provides also a brief description of the Chinese language through
integrating a comprehensive source of literature. In particular, the
description explains several important typological features of Mandarin
Chinese that are highly relevant to discourse coherence, but are absent
from English, such as the topic-comment sentence structure, the uses of
classifiers, the phenomenon of zero anaphora, the common absence of
conjunctions among clauses in the language, and the uses of what Wu
calls "adverbial particles" in Chinese, e.g. the particle jiu, which
according to Wu, "function to anchor an utterance (or a proposition) to
the context of another" (p.17). This part not only provides a useful
background to the readers who are not familiar with the language of
Mandarin Chinese, but also contains valuable discussions for researchers
who are interested in those linguistic features.

Chapter 2
In chapter 2, Wu discusses, at a relatively abstract and theoretical
level, the semantic and cognitive nature of spatial demonstratives. She
argues that the cognitive approach, when compared to that of the formal
semantic, is a more suitable approach for studying spatial demonstratives
due to the deictic characteristics of them. Also in this chapter, Wu
proposes her notion of "deictic force" to explain the phenomenon of
spatial demonstratives.

Wu first posits the basic semantic of spatial demonstratives as
involving "the speaker ego in relation to the spatial aspect of the
context of utterance" (p.30). She then argues that formal semantic
theories (as discussed in Kempson 1997, Palmer, 1982) are not sufficient
to deal with spatial demonstratives due to their deictic nature (i.e.,
egocentric, orientational, and contextual in their referring),
because "the truth value of the proposition in which a demonstrative is
involved is evaluated by considering its referent in the relevant context"
(p.36) and "to insist on a mapping relation between the intension and
extension of spatial demonstratives [as a semantic theory would] would be
in principle impossible." (p.36)

Wu suggests that a cognitive approach is more appropriate in studying
spatial demonstratives, because it concerns the cognitive notions such
as "conceptual space organization" (Miller & Johnson-Laird
1976), "prototype" (Fillmore 1982), relational schema (Langacker 1985),
and figure-ground conceptualization (Talmy 1983), which all fit into the
basic semantic of spatial demonstratives. Incorporating these notions, Wu
proposes her notion of "deictic force" to explain the asymmetries between
proximal and non-proximal demonstratives (p.51). To simply put, the
notion of "deictic force" states an abstract relationship between
the "speaker ego" (i.e., the source of the point of view) and the target
referent denoted with the spatial demonstrative. The closer the
conceptual distance between the two (i.e., in proximal demonstratives),
the "stronger" the "deictic force" would be from the "speaker ego" and
hence the more "control" the "ego" would have over the referent being
denoted (p.54). As a result, referents that are supposed to be "closer"
to the speaker's ego behave as they are more "in focus", more "specific"
in meaning and are "within the boundary of" the speaker, as in the case of
proximal demonstratives. On the other hand, referents denoted with non-
proximal demonstratives are conceptually "beyond the immediate focus and
control of the speaker" (p.42).

Chapter 3
In chapter 3, Wu compares the uses of English and Chinese spatial
demonstratives in real space with a "Jigsaw Puzzle" task study and shows
that the basic semantic of the two sets of spatial demonstratives from
English and Chinese are extremely similar.

In her experiment, all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle were numbered and lined
up in each trial between two 10-12 year-old school children subjects (of
either both English or Chinese speakers). One subject would inform the
other regarding which jigsaw piece to pick up to complete the puzzle. Wu
recorded the uses of demonstratives of each subject referring to each
piece of jigsaw during the task and then compared the uses of
demonstratives in referring to each jigsaw piece in the two languages
(this and that; zheli and nali).

Wu reports that in this real space situation created in the experiment,
the uses of the demonstratives in English and Chinese are remarkably
similar. Both sets of demonstratives are used with the senses
of "egocentricity" and "directionality" (all subjects who played the role
of giving the instructions in building the puzzle used gestures of
pointing as they use the demonstratives to refer to the jigsaws, p.69.)
The referents of both sets of demonstratives are identified in terms of
spatial relation and the contractiveness between the proximal and non-
proximal demonstratives exists in both languages (subjects used this and
zhe to refer to pieces that were relatively nearby, and that and na to
refer to those that were far away).

Chapter 4
After describing the experiment in chapter 3, Wu extends her comparison of
the two languages to displaced contexts, with two narratives and their
Chinese and English translations. In chapter 4, Wu identifies and
elaborates five characteristics of spatial demonstratives shared by both
languages in displaced contexts. Wu calls them "five modes of extension"

Following an overview of her corpora, Wu elaborates the five extensions
one by one with examples she found in both languages. First, Wu notes a
shift of properties in the referents in displaced context. In both
English and Mandarin, spatial demonstratives denote textual entities and
mental representations in displaced discourse, rather than physical
entities as they do in real space. Then, Wu identifies the phenomenon
of "deictic center shift" (p.78), in which the "perspective center" (i.e.,
the deictic center) shifts from the actual speaker to the story narrator
or a character in the displace context. Wu also describes the influences
of "deictic force" in the uses of demonstratives in displaced contexts,
which again exist in both English and Chinese. Then, in both English and
Chinese there are uses in which the asymmetrical deictic meaning between
the proximal and non-proximal demonstratives is "cancelled" by each other
(e.g., in the expressions "this and that"). Finally, the physical
distance originally denoted in real space by spatial demonstratives often
receives three types of metaphorical reinterpretations in displaced
contexts: modality, temporal, and locutionary agent's individual and
attitudinal involvement. This is again true for both English and

Chapter 5
With the same set of data but a different manner of observation, Wu in
chapter 5 presents the differences of demonstrative uses between English
and Mandarin by comparing the translation of the demonstratives of the two
narratives. She reports that there are "three broad types of mismatching
in the translation" of demonstratives (p.141). First, some demonstratives
are not directly translated. Second, the demonstratives being used in the
target language are not necessarily comparable to the original ones in the
source language. Finally, many demonstratives in Chinese are translated
into the pronoun it and the article the in English. With examples from
her corpora, Wu describes in details the patterns of how each
demonstrative is translated in the parallel texts in the two narratives.
She also suggests that the mismatches of demonstratives in the translated
texts are due to the different syntactic or structure constraints of the
two languages (e.g., unlike in English, pronominal demonstratives in
Mandarin do not usually occur in the object position).


Nicely organized and meticulously researched, Wu's book offers valuable
and interesting data regarding the uses of spatial demonstratives in both
English and Mandarin to a wide set of linguistic audiences. The data
presented by Wu in this book (especially in 3, 4, and 5) may interest
readers who are keen in the study of English or Chinese demonstratives,
who are interested in the two languages per se, or who study translation.
In addition, throughout the presentation of her data, Wu has analyzed many
discourse phenomena that will interest researchers of pragmatics and
discourse analysis, such as the phenomenon of point of view, subjectivity,
modality, and locutionary agent's attitudes (e.g., chapter 4). Finally,
some of the patterns Wu finds in the uses of demonstratives in both
English and Chinese are also valuable to typological research in deixis,
e.g., the finding that non-proximal demonstratives tend to develop a
greater variety of usage when compared to the proximal ones.

While Wu's book does provide valuable data descriptions and analyses
regarding English and Chinese demonstratives, perhaps two somewhat
disappointing aspects of it are that firstly, it does not elaborate
clearly enough on the notion of "deictic force", which is supposed to be a
main theme of the book (p.2). In addition, some of the discussions in the
book are too abstract and contain excessive jargon that might put off some
readers who are less patient.

Although Wu suggest in chapter 3 that her "deictic force" is related to
some cognitive notions, it is however unclear to the readers how exactly
this notion is directly related to human cognition. In particular, it is
surprising to me that while the notion of "deictic force" is supposed to
be related to some tendencies of human cognition (e.g., such as point-of-
view, subjectivity, and spatial conception), Wu's study does not discuss
relevant experimental works (e.g., see Bryant 1992 for a list of relevant
experimental studies on spatial representations and subjectivity). Since
one chapter of the book is also an experimental study (chapter 3), it
seems that it would be appropriate for Wu to have discussed some
experimental works pertaining to space and cognition and let her notion of
deictic force more concretely grounded on them (instead of simply being an
abstract notion with limited explanatory power for the phenomena she
identified). In addition, I also suspect that Wu's readers would benefit
more from the abstract discussions in chapter 3, if she had provided some
linguistic examples to illustrate her notion of deictic force as well as
her argument against a formal semantic approach (e.g., to illustrate how
the formal semantic approach might have failed to explain some instances
of demonstratives, while a cognitive approach would.)

Despite these caveats, Wu's book, particularly in her original data, makes
a valuable contribution to the research on deictic demonstratives.


Bryant, David J. (1992) A Spatial Representation System in Humans,
Psycoloquy: 3,#16 Space (1)

Fillmore, Charles J. (1982) Towards a descriptive framework for spatial
deixis. In Speech, Place, & Action: Studies in Deixis and Related Topics,
R. J. Jarvella and W. Klein (eds), 31-59. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Kempson, Ruth M. (1977) Semantic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Langacker, Ronald W. (1985). Observations and speculations on
subjectivity. In Haiman, John, ed. Iconicity in syntax, 109-150.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Miller, George A. and Johnson-Laird, Philp N. (1976) Language and
Perception. Cambridge, Mass. : Havard University Press.

Palmer, Frank R. (1982) Semantics (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Talmy, Leonard. (1983). "How language structures space," in H. Pick and L.
Acredolo, editors, Spatial Orientation: Theory, Research and Application,
Plenum Press, New York.


Ring Mei-Han Low recently received her PhD in Linguistics from the
University at Buffalo and she received her masters in Linguistics from the
University of Manchester in England. Her research focuses on definiteness
in English, discourse analysis. A complete profile of her research is
listed at WorkingDirs/people/personal/get-personal-page2.cfm?PersonID=20575>.