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  • Demonstratives in Space and Interaction: Data from Lao Speakers and Implications for Semantic Analysis
  • N. J. Enfield

The semantics of simple (i.e. two-term) systems of demonstratives have in general hitherto been treated as inherently spatial and as marking a symmetrical opposition of distance (‘proximal’ versus ‘distal’), assuming the speaker as a point of origin. More complex systems are known to add further distinctions, such as visibility or elevation, but are assumed to build on basic distinctions of distance. Despite their inherently context-dependent nature, little previous work has based the analysis of demonstratives on evidence of their use in real interactional situations. In this article, video recordings of spontaneous interaction among speakers of Lao (Southwestern Tai, Laos) are examined in an analysis of the two Lao demonstrative determiners nii4 and nan4. A hypothesis of minimal encoded semantics is tested against rich contextual information, and the hypothesis is shown to be consistent with the data. Encoded conventional meanings must be kept distinct from contingent contextual information and context-dependent pragmatic implicatures. Based on examples of the two Lao demonstrative determiners in exophoric uses, the following claims are made. The term nii4 is a semantically general demonstrative, lacking specification of any spatial property (such as location or distance). The term nan4 specifies that the referent is ‘not here’ (encoding ‘location’ but not ‘distance’). Anchoring the semantic specification in a deictic primitive ‘here’ allows a strictly discrete intensional distinction to be mapped onto an extensional range of endless elasticity. A common ‘proximal’ spatial interpretation for the semantically more general term nii4 arises from the paradigmatic opposition of the two demonstrative determiners. This kind of analysis suggests a reappraisal of our general understanding of the semantics of demonstrative systems universally. To investigate the question in sufficient detail, however, rich contextual data (preferably collected on video) is necessary.*

1. The semantics of demonstratives

Demonstratives are one of the great puzzles of linguistic science. They represent perhaps the archetypal case of the linguistic system being grafted onto the physical world. But the semantics of demonstratives remain poorly understood (despite advances in their typological description; Fillmore 1982: [End Page 82] 47ff, Anderson & Keenan 1985, Himmelmann 1996, Diessel 1999), primarily because demonstratives have seldom been examined in situ. Due to the inherently context-bound character of demonstratives, it is necessary to examine their use in spontaneous interaction, in all its richness. Such a method is pursued in this study, using data from video recordings of natural interaction among speakers of Lao (Southwestern Tai, Laos), as spoken around the city of Vientiane. While the Lao demonstrative determiner system is typologically unremarkable (a two-term system opposing so-called proximal and distal), a traditional analysis—assuming a symmetrical opposition of ‘distance’ marking between the two terms—fails. Close attention to distributional facts and the pragmatics of interlocutors’ interpretations of physical space in interaction (including contingent factors like attention, common ground, cultural and personal conceptions of space) supports a lean semantic analysis of the two demonstratives, whereby neither encodes ‘distance’ (i.e. neither makes specification of notions such as ‘near’ or ‘far’), and only one encodes ‘location’ (namely the semantically more specific ‘distal’ demonstrative, which refers to something ‘not here’). The proposed semantics are minimal, yet they remain consistent with the use of these forms in rich contexts. I suggest that similar analyses are likely to hold for other such typologically unremarkable systems (such as English this and that).

I begin here by introducing the view of linguistic meaning adopted in this analysis. While it may be that only a minimal proportion of a given utterance’s whole meaning is semantically encoded, one cannot verify the content of that encoded component nor understand the principles of its use without studying the contingent details of interactional context, monitoring the input of information from the speech situation, and the resultant enrichment of encoded meaning by inference. I argue (§2) that in order to understand what is conveyed in total in an interaction, a Gricean distinction between encoded semantics and defeasible implicature is necessary. Maintaining such a distinction helps to highlight the importance of context-given information and context-derived inference in computing the overall meanings...


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pp. 82-117
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