Roberta Rocca , Kristian Tylén, and Mikkel Wallentin have a new journal article out in Plos One: This shoe, that tiger: Semantic properties reflecting manual affordances of the referent modulate demonstrative use
Demonstrative reference is central to human communication. But what influences our choice of demonstrative forms such as “this” and “that” in discourse? Previous literature has mapped the use of such “proximal” and “distal” demonstratives onto spatial properties of referents, such as their distance from the speaker. We investigated whether object semantics, and specifically functional properties of referents, also influence speakers’ choices of either demonstrative form. Over two experiments, we presented English, Danish and Italian speakers with words denoting animate and inanimate objects, differing in size and harmfulness, and asked them to match them with a proximal or a distal demonstrative. Objects that offer more affordances for manipulation (smaller and harmless) elicited significantly more proximal demonstratives. These effects were stronger for inanimate referents, in line with the predictions of sensory-functional views on object semantics. These results suggest that demonstrative use may be partly grounded on manual affordances, and hints at the possibility of using demonstratives as a proxy to investigate the organization of semantic knowledge.