Let’s say you’re planning something with your friend on the phone. You are going to her place later. You say “I’ll be there soon”. She says “I’ll be here waiting”. Even though you are both referring to the same location (her house), one person called it “there” and the other person called it “here”. Why?
It’s because the words here and there don’t have fixed reference. The location they refer to depends on the location of the person who is speaking. Things that are nearby the speaker are ‘here’ and things that are far away from the speaker are ‘there’. That can cover a lot of distance, from the table in the next room (“I left my keys there”) to the surface of Pluto (“What knows what’s there?”).
Words like here and there are called “spatial deictics” in linguistics. They give a sense of where something is located, relative to a reference point. The simple system of English, which divides up space between close to the speaker vs. not close to the speaker, is actually pretty common, but it is certainly not the only way to do things.
Many languages have three spatial deictics, such as Japanese. The word koko means ‘close to the speaker’ and is similar to English ‘here’. There is also the word soko, which means ‘close to the addressee’. Then there’s asoko meaning ‘close to neither the speaker nor the addressee’.
Heiltsuk, an endangered Wakashan language spoken in British Columbia Canada, has three different affixes to indicate close (-kwa), medium distance (-iax), and far away (-ia) from the speaker. Adding –ch gives the meaning that the thing you’re talking about is not visible. So for example, –kwa refers to “something close by and visible” and –kwach refers to “something close by and invisible” (maybe a pen that dropped under my chair). Heiltsuk also has another category called “absent” for referring to locations where something is not currently, but should be or could be.
Lhasa Tibetan makes similar distinctions to Japanese. There is the deictic ti– which means ‘close to the speaker’, the– means ‘close to the addressee’, and pha– means ‘far from both of them’. However, Tibetan also has two more special forms that refer to elevation: ya– means ‘far from both speaker and addressee, and also up high’, while ma– means ‘far from both, and also down low’.
Speaking of words referring to elevation, these are especially prominent in the Alor-Pantar family of languages in Indonesia. In Wersing, there are three words for indicating a location by specifically referring to its elevation: yona (lower than the speaker), tona (higher than the speaker) and mona (level with the speaker). In Abui, things are a little more complex, with terms for “level with the speaker”, “higher than the speaker and also nearby”, “higher than the speaker and also far away”, “lower than the addressee and also nearby”, and “lower than the addressee and also far away”. The language Blagar has a special pair of words for “unelevated and nearby the speaker” and “unelevated and nearby the listener”
The language I personally find most fascinating is Nivkh, which is spoken in Outer Manchuria. The basic system in Nivkh indicates how far away something is from the speaker. There are five degrees of distance, each with their own prefix. The prefix tu– is for the ‘proximal area’, things that are close enough for the speaker to touch with her hands. The prefix hu– is for ‘close area’, things are are too far to touch, but still relatively close by. The prefix e– is for ‘medial area’, which is somewhere more distant from the speaker, but still probably within sight. The prefix au– is for ‘remote area’, which is very far away from the speaker. Finally, the prefix aiɢ– is for ‘distal area’, which is even further away, and likely out of sight for the speaker.
It’s helpful to imagine the categories all lined up, like this:
speaker is here > proximal > close > medial > remote > distal
What makes Nivkh truly complex is that there is another layer on top of this, and it is possible to specify more precisely within each category where something is. First, you can refer to something as being in a specific location at one of these distance by adding the suffix –s. Or you can refer to something as being located along a path towards a location, using the suffix –kr. These suffixes additionally indicates that something is located relatively close the boundary of the previous category. For example, since hu– is used for ‘close’, hu-s might mean something like ‘a specific location just out of reach’. (This isn’t exactly how the grammar of Nivkh works, you would need more than just these affixes, but this should illustrate the idea enough for a blog post.)
But it doesn’t stop there. You can tack on another suffix –ŋa to indicate a distance somewhat further away from the previous category boundary. And you can add yet another suffix –jo to mean that it’s even further away, but still not yet in the next category. For instance, my neighbours may all live within the the medial category (e-), but I could use these additional suffixes to distinguish between their respective distances: the house next door might be e-s-ŋa, while the house two doors down might be e-s-ŋa-jo.
This is something to think about this next time you say “it’s over there”. Where, exactly, is ‘over there’? What would you say instead, if you didn’t speak English?