‘This’ and ‘That’ in ‘Foreign’ Dialects

FingerMy favorite line in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is in its first scene, when a strongly-accented rabbi,  mid-eulogy, lists ‘Eric’ among the deceased’s grandchildren. He interrupts his speech and addresses the audience: ‘Eric? This is a Jewish name?’

The rabbi uses ‘this‘ where most English speakers have ‘that,’ a common switcheroo in Yiddish-influenced English. Although ‘that’ is the ‘natural-sounding’ word in English, it would be hard for most people to explain why. Asked to define ‘this’ and ‘that’ sans dictionary, I’d say ‘this’ is the demonstrative pronoun referring to close objects, while ‘that’ pertains to objects far away. Simple, right?

Well, no. As the above example demonstrates (no pun intended), things become confusing with abstractions like proper names. Why is ‘That‘s a Jewish name?’ more ‘correct’ than ‘This is a Jewish name?’ (Isn’t the written word within close proximity to the speaker?)

The same seems true when ‘this’ and ‘that’ are used adjectivally. In a recent Project Runway episode, Heidi Klum (who speaks English with near-native fluency), said something along the lines of, ‘I like this pretty dress.‘ (She was referring to a piece of clothing under discussion). If Klum had said ‘I liked this dress,’ nothing would seem amiss. But inserting a modifier between ‘this’ and ‘dress’ sounds ever so slightly off*.

The problem here lies in in demonstratives’ quirky little nuances. Take, for example, paralinguistic factors like gesticulation. Lets say I greet a friend of mine, notice she’s holding a book, and it prompts the following:

Me: What are you reading?
Friend: The Great Gatsby.
Me: This is my favorite book.

At first glance, my use of ‘this’ instead of ‘that’ seems bizarre. But if I put my finger directly on the book as I exlaim ‘This is my favorite book,’ it makes sense.

Anyway, I’m out of my depth when it comes to this kind of thing, so if there are any English semanticists or semantics fans out there, I’d love to hear more. Why do ‘this’ and ‘that’ cause so much trouble for those whose first language isn’t English? And does anyone know any ‘native’ English dialects that do this?

*Here’s why it sounds slightly off to me: ‘this’ can also be used as an indefinite article, as in the sentence, ‘I met this weird guy on the street today.’  Hence, there’s some structural ambiguity in a sentence like ‘I liked this dress’. When the object of the sentence takes an adjective, it more clearly falls into the indefinite article side of things. This is apparent when you compare ‘I like this pretty dress [that I saw in the store],’ which makes sense, to ‘I like this pretty dress [that we’ve been discussing for the past twenty minutes], which doesn’t.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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18 Responses to ‘This’ and ‘That’ in ‘Foreign’ Dialects

  1. Tom Sprague says:

    “At first glance, my use of ‘this’ instead of ‘that’ seems bizarre. But if I put my finger directly on the book as I exlaim ‘This is my favorite book,’ it makes sense.”

    Even then it seems weird to me as a native speaker of English. If your friend already said the title of the book, then it seems more natural to me to use “that”. And any time someone else is holding something, it doesn’t feel totally natural to me to say “this” unless I grab it out of their hands with both of my hands and then excitedly exclaim, “This is my favorite book!?!? Where did you get it!?!?” I guess the object has to be very firmly in my possession before I feel completely comfortable saying “this” instead of “that”. But it’s very early in the morning right now; I need more time to think about this. This is all pretty complicated and difficult to explain stuff in any case.

    • Haha, very true. I think you also touch on another factor here, which is that prosody also plays a big part. Which words get emphasis certainly clarifies things.

    • 1010 says:

      after some experimentation, I don’t think it’s posession – I think “this” requires physical contact with the object, or so such close proximity as to be almost in contact. even if something mine, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using “this” unless I’m touching it.

  2. Aaron Bauman says:

    If someone can shed some light on this, that’d be really helpful.
    That’s not to say the previous comments are off the mark, just that this might merit further insight.

  3. IVV says:

    I think “that” is a throwaway word, while “this” provides emphasis. Compare:

    “That’s a problem.”

    “This is a problem.”

    They are both very real, reasonable sentences. However, “that” problem is not a concern; by being “far” it is deemphasized. “This” problem, on the other hand, evokes urgency; it is “close,” it must be dealt with now.

  4. Lane says:

    Both Klum (German) and the rabbi (Yiddish) might struggle because of interference from their first (Germanic) languages. I don’t speak Yiddish, but I do know that German’s demonstratives don’t line up with English’s. For the pronouns, there are “dies” [this] and “das” [that], but “das” is way more common. You would only use “dies” to emphasise the this-right-here aspect. Otherwise, if you were brandishing your favorite book to a friend, you’d say “Das is mein Lieblingsbuch,” “*That’s* my favorite book,” even though it’s in your hand.

    In adjective position, German has “dieses” [this] and “jenes” [that], so you could say “Dieses Buch ist fantastisch.” But if you were pointing to the book on the table across the room, you wouldn’t say “Jenes Buch ist fantastisch.” More likely “Das Buch dort ist fantastisch.” (The book there is fantastic.)

    It’s been 17 years since I lived in Germany, so if any of this is rusty, maybe a German speaker better than me can let us know. My German may well have been slightly off in this regard too, since there’s a fine feel that takes a while to get. But what I can say is that “this” and “that” don’t map neatly onto “dies”/”das” or “dieses”/”jenes”.

    • Fascinating. I had assumed the Germanic thing might have had something to do with it, but don’t enough about either language’s semantics to comment. I’ve always assumed that demonstrative pronouns don’t translate very well from language to language; I still struggle with the Spanish ‘aquel,’ even though it’s not that difficult to understand on an intellectual level. But mid-conversation, it’s a differents story. It’s tough to adjust your concepts of distance and physical relationship.

    • I think you’re right. Another example that backs up your theory is Bulgarian, which which tova (translated as “this”) is used for things that are near me or near you, and onova (that) is used only for things that are far from both me and you.

      This is in contrast to English, where “this” is only for things that are near me. If you are holding a book, I say “is that book good.” I think this is because English used to have three pointing words (this, that, and yonder), but that extended from thing-close-to-you into the semantic territory of thing-far-from-us. That spacial distinction also bleeds over into ideas (what did you say? That’s a stupid idea) and time (This is going to be a good night. That was a good night).

      So it seems English has evolved a pointing system different from other European languages (at least German, Yiddish, and Bulgarian). Any other examples?

  5. Jesse A. says:

    None of these examples seem odd to me, with the exception of “This is my favorite book,” but perhaps it’s because I’m a native speaker of American Jewish English, so the yiddishism comes more naturally. That being said, I’m going to plug the Jewish English Lexicon. Great resource for those interested in Jewish English. http://www.jewish-languages.org/jewish-english-lexicon/welcome

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Curiously, when on the phone and you don’t yet recognize the caller, you could say: “Is this Jane?” or contrariwise “Is that you?” but probably not “Is that Jane?”[maybe] or “Is this you?”

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  8. Steve Bronfman says:

    The book example demonstrates a subtly of English.

    “This is my favorite book,” would mean “this is my favorite copy of the Great Gatsby. “That is my favorite book,” means more generally that the Great Gatsby is the speakers favorite novel. I think this is in keeping with your definitions.

    I think in Yiddish there is not distinction between this and that.

  9. Trista Kew says:

    When going into the problem of ‘this’ and ‘that’ in English, I’d consider also the deixis. In case of these demonstratives, the distance between the speaker and the referent is not only spatial but in many cases temporal as well (indirect speech, for example). It might be that the deixis realtionships in one’s native tongue are different from these in English and that is the reason why non-native speakers make mistakes with these two demonstratives.
    (non-native general linquist)

  10. Alex L. says:

    As a native English speaker I have to disagree with those examples being strange. Although missing context may be the cause of that. But I think it’s important to note that the use of demonstratives can vary highly even between dialects. Some rural English Englishes actually still use three of these ‘pointer’ demonstratives. Knowing this, it’s probable that the scope of meaning of ‘this’ demonstratives varies even more so.

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