Funky language features – the third spatial deictic reference in Japanese, Korean and Tamil

The words ‘here’ and ‘there’ are spatial deictic references that are familiar to all English speakers.

‘Here’ means ‘near the speaker’.

‘There’ means ‘not near the speaker’.

Two words related to ‘here’ and ‘there’ are ‘this’ and ‘that’ which work much like ‘the’ but refer to things that are ‘near the speaker’ or ‘not near the speaker’.

So, in English, all spatial deictic references are relative to the speaker.

Here is an illustration of spatial deixis taken from the Wikipedia article on deixis.

But there are languages in which there are more than two spatial deictic references.

Japanese, Korean and Tamil have three each.

In Japanese, they are koko, soko and asoko.

In Korean, they are yogi, kugi and chogi.  (Here is a very nice lesson on deixis in Korean http://www.talktomeinkorean.com/lessons/l1l7).

In Tamil, they are inge, unge and ange.

The reason for the additional deictic reference is that in these languages, distances are perceived not just with respect to the speaker, but also with respect to the listener.

So,  in Japanese, Korean and Tamil respectively, koko, yogi and inge mean ‘near the speaker’.

Then, soko, kugi and unge mean ‘near the listener’.

Finally, asoko, chogi and ange mean ‘far from both the speaker and the listener’.

The “near the listener” deixis seems like a rather useless feature to have in a language (it is disappearing from modern Tamil).

In the modern world, when you talk to someone face to face (not on the phone), you are usually standing just a few feet from them.

So, anything “near the speaker” is also “near the listener”.  One of those spatial references is therefore redundant.

But then, if one of the spatial references was so useless, why did it appear in Korean and Japanese in addition to Tamil?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Korea and South India are peninsulas, and Japan is an island.

All three countries have long coastlines.

So, some ancestors of the inhabitants of Korea, Japan and South India might have lived off of deep-water fishing.

On the ocean there is an immediate use for the “near the listener” deictic.

Imagine a fleet of boats spread out on the ocean looking for fish to spear or net.

The boatmen would have no features to use to communicate directions.

The only features they’d have had to identify positions would have been their own boats.

So, they’d probably have had conversations with each other that went as follows:

Boat 1:  Are there any fish near you (the listener)?

Boat 2:  No, there are no fish near me (the speaker).  Are there any fish near you (the listener)?

Boat 1:  No, there are no fish near me (the speaker).  We should look for fish away from both of us (pointing)?

In such conversations, all three deictics would have been used.

The sentence “Are there any fish near you (the listener)?” would have used the word soko (in Japanese), kugi (in Korean) and unge (in Tamil).

The sentence “No, there are no fish near me (the speaker)” would have used the word koko (in Japanese), yogi (in Korean) and inge (in Tamil).

The sentence “We should look for fish away from both of us (pointing)” would have used the word asoko (in Japanese), chogi (in Korean) and ange (in Tamil).

I am just guessing at all this, of course.  Part of the fun of working in linguistics is that you can extrapolate from tenuous linguistic clues, and indulge in wild flights of fantasy.

But what I am proposing is not entirely unimaginable.

In 2011, in a small cave (called the Jerimalai cave) in East Timor, archaeologists found bones from 2843 individual fish, some of which were caught 42000 years ago.  50% of the bones were those of deep-water tuna fish. The finds also included fish hooks dating from between 23000 and 16000 years ago.

More details on the Jerimalai find here: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/ancient-human-fishermen-111128.htm

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3 thoughts on “Funky language features – the third spatial deictic reference in Japanese, Korean and Tamil

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