28 March, 2009


Personal deixis Spatial deixis Temporal deixis
The term 'Deixis' comes from the Greek deiktikos (=“able to show”). This is related to Greek d√®iknymi (dyke-nimmy) meaning “explain” or “prove”. The standard pronunciation has two syllables (dyke-sis) while the adjective form is deictic (dyke-tik).
According to Stephen Levinson:
“Deixis concerns the ways in which languages encode...features of the context of utterance ... and thus also concerns ways in which the interpretation of utterances depends on the analysis of that context of utterance.”
Deixis is an important field of language study in its own right - and very important for learners of second languages. But it has some relevance to analysis of conversation and pragmatics. It is often and best described as “verbal pointing”, that is to say pointing by means of language. The linguistic forms of this pointing are called deictic expressions, deictic markers or deictic words; they are also sometimes called indexicals.
Deictic expressions include such lexemes as:
• Personal or possessive pronouns (I/you/mine/yours),
• Demonstrative pronouns (this/that),
• (Spatial/temporal) adverbs (here/there/now),
• Other pro-forms (so/do),
• Personal or possessive adjectives (my/your),
• Demonstrative adjectives (this/that),
• Articles (the).
Deixis refers to the world outside a text. Reference to the context surrounding an utterance is often referred to as primary deixis, exophoric deixis or simply deixis alone. Primary deixis is used to point to a situation outside a text (situational deixis) or to the speaker's and hearer's (shared) knowledge of the world (knowledge deixis).
Contextual use of deictic expressions is known as secondary deixis, textual deixis or endophoric deixis. Such expressions can refer either backwards or forwards to other elements in a text:
• Anaphoric deixis is backward pointing, and is the norm in English texts. Examples include demonstrative pronouns: such, said, similar, (the) same.
• Cataphoric deixis is forward pointing. Examples include: the following, certain, some (“the speaker raised some objections...”), this (“Let me say this...”), these, several.
Deictic expressions fall into three categories:
• Personal deixis (you, us),
• Spatial deixis (here, there) and
• Temporal deixis (now, then).
Deixis is clearly tied to the speaker's context, the most basic distinction being between near the speaker (proximal) and away from the speaker (distal).
• Proximal deictic expressions include this, here and now.
• Distal deictic expressions include that, there and then.
Proximal expressions are generally interpreted in relation to the speaker's location or deictic centre. For example now is taken to mean some point or period in time that matches the time of the speaker's utterance. When we read, “Now Barabbas was a thief” (John 18.40) we do not take the statement to mean the same as “Barabbas was now a thief” (i.e. he had become a thief, having not been so before). Rather we read it as St. John's writing, “I'm telling you now, that Barabbas was (not now but at the time in the past when these events happened) a thief”.
Personal deixis
English does not use personal deixis to indicate relative social status in the same way that other languages do (such as those with TV pronoun systems). But the pronoun we has a potential for ambiguity, i.e. between exclusive we (excludes the hearer) and the hearer-including (inclusive) we.
Spatial deixis
The use of proximal and distal expressions in spatial deixis is confused by deictic projection. This is the speaker's ability to project himself or herself into a location at which he or she is not yet present. A familiar example is the use of here on telephone answering machines (“I'm not here at the moment...”).
It is likely that the basis of spatial deixis is psychological distance (rather than physical distance). Usually physical and (metaphorical) psychological distance will appear the same. But a speaker may wish to mark something physically close as psychologically distant, as when you indicate an item of food on your plate with “I don't like that”.
Temporal deixis
Psychological distance can apply to temporal deixis as well. We can treat temporal events as things that move towards us (into view) or away from us (out of view). For instance, we speak of the coming year or the approaching year. This may stem from our perception of things (like weather storms) which we see approaching both spatially and in time. We treat the near or immediate future as being close to utterance time by using the proximal deictic expression this alone, as in “this (that is the next) weekend” or “this evening” (said earlier in the day).