Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Demonstrative deixis in Catalan

Once upon a time (a time which still continues further south towards València) Catalan had a three-way deictic opposition in its demonstratives analogous with este/ese/aquel in Spanish and hic/iste/ille in Latin: that is, with one form corresponding to each of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person. This scheme is outlined below:

pronoun adjective adverb
1 açò aquest aquí
2 això aqueix allí
3 allò aquell allà

So in this system, aquí = "here by me," allí = "there by you," and allà = "over there by someone else." This obviously differs from the English system in that 2nd and 3rd person have merged with us, giving us only here = "here by me" and there = "there by you" or "over there by someone else," which seems only natural, given that I'm a native English speaker.

Modern standard Catalan also merged two of its persons, though in a totally different way which confounds my English-speaking brain: 1st and 2nd person now share a form. This gives the following paradigm:

pronoun adjective adverb
1/2 això aquest aquí
3 allò aquell allà

This means that when you point at something your interlocutor is holding and ask after its identity, you have to say Què és això? = "What's this?" It's not too terribly difficult to imagine how this might happen -- as Amelia points out, until very recently any referents of això were likely to be in the same room, or at least within view, as opposed to referents of allò which would universally have been further away and possibly not visible. It's a reasonable, fairly natural grouping, on the face of it.

Things get weird in the modern age, though, particularly where the telephone is concerned. For example, since 1st- and 2nd-person deictics share the same form, you have to use aquí = "here" to refer to the location of the person on the other end of the phone! A question like Què passa aquí? is ambiguous -- it could mean either "What's going on here where I am?" or "What's going on over there where you are?" It's easy to imagine some ridiculous ensuing conversations: No, no, no pas aquí, sinó aquí!

So how does the ambiguity get resolved? You can't use allà because that would imply a place unconnected to either party in the conversation. I have to imagine that there must be some conventionalized circumlocution -- aquí amb mi or aquí a prop de mi vs. aquí amb tu or aquí a prop de tu or whatever. And if so, this would be incredibly ripe for grammaticalization, perhaps even yielding another three-way deictic opposition once the forms have fossilized and reduced phonetically and all that good stuff.

Of course, this is my English-speaking sensibility talking, which can't imagine not being able to distinguish lexically between locations on either side of a phone call. It would be interesting to observe how this really works in Catalan-speaking areas -- maybe they don't have a problem with the ambiguity. Good for my armchair-phililogist complacency to remind myself that "natural" and "reasonable" are extremely subjective concepts...