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How Does Deixis Work?

Student name: Robert O’Mara

Lecturer: Mr. Feargal Murphy
Course: Pragmatics
“Language in its ordinary use is dependent on context” (Jarvella and Klein, 1982, p1).
This statement holds for the content of utterances, and the references made in them,
but, Jarvella and Klein also maintain that the statement holds for the words used to
express or to refer to this content. They refer to this part of language as the ‘language
of context’.
When looking at meaning in language, the view is that the unit of communication is
not the sentence, but the ‘message’, comprising, according to Rommetveit, ‘two
separate but mutually dependent components, namely the act of speech itself and a
non-linguistic component of the situation’ (Tanz, 1980, p10). This non-linguistic
component is the context in which the sentence is uttered: “The meaning of sentences
cannot be fully explained ‘without reference to their existence in some speaker-hearer
context’” (Feldman, in Tanz, 1980, p10).
When language is spoken, it occurs in a specific location, at a specific time, is
produced by a specific person and is (usually) addressed to some specific other person
or persons. The device that spoken languages have that links the utterance with its
context is the ‘language of context’. This is also known as ‘deixis’. Deictic terms such
as personal pronouns (I, you, s/he, ...) and demonstratives (this/that) refer to a
particular entity which is only given by the context. For example, in the utterance ‘she
went there yesterday’, we do not know who she is, or where she went. This
information is normally not provided in the utterance itself, and can only be obtained
through knowledge of the context in which it was uttered.
According to Levinson, deixis shows how the relationship between language and
context is reflected in the structure of languages themselves. It concerns two things:
the ways in which languages encode features of the context of utterance, and the way
in which the interpretation of utterances depends on the analysis of that context of
utterance (Levinson, 1995, p54).
Levinson goes on to separate deixis into five different categories – the traditional ones
of person, place and time, and also, discourse deixis and social deixis.
• Person deixis deals with the manner in which the role of the participants in a
speech event is encoded in the utterance. The first person encodes the reference of
the speaker to himself (I, me); the second person is the speaker’s reference to one
or more addressees (you), and the third person encodes the speaker’s reference to
people who are neither speakers or addressees of the utterance.
• Place deixis deals with the encoding of spatial locations relative to the location of
the participants in the speech event. Most languages make a distinction between
locations close to and distant from the speaker, such as the English demonstratives
this and that, or the adverbs of place here and there. Other languages, such as
Spanish, make distinctions between locations close to the speaker, close to the
addressee, or distant from both (the demonstratives esto, eso and aquello, or the
adverbs aqui, ahi and alli).
• Time deixis encodes time spans and points in time relative to the time the
utterance was spoken (or written). Time deixis is encoded in adverbs of time, such
as now and then, today and yesterday, but mainly, time deixis is encoded in verb
• Discourse deixis is described as the encoding of reference to portions of the
unfolding discourse in which the utterance is located. This is clarified in the
following two examples:
1. Puff, puff, puff: that is what it sounded like.
2. This is what phoneticians call creaky voice.
• Social deixis is concerned with the encoding of social distinctions relative to the
roles of the participants, particularly to the social relationship between the speaker
and the addressee. These distinctions are encoded in a variety of ways, such as the
use of pronouns. For example, Spanish, like many romance languages,
distinguishes between informal and formal second person, in both singular and
plural (sing. tu and usted, and plural vosotros and ustedes).

Deixis is said to be organised in an egocentric way, in other words there are points of
anchorage in an utterance that constitute the ‘deictic centre’. These are assumed to be
the following: (i) the central person is the speaker, (ii) the central time is the time at
which the speaker produces the utterance, (iii) the central place is the speaker’s
location at the time of utterance, (iv) the discourse centre is the point which the
speaker is currently at in the production of his utterance, and (v) the social centre is
the speaker’s social status and rank, to which the status or rank of addressees or
referents is relative (Levinson, 1995). Ironically, this egocentrism contributes to a
child’s difficulty in dealing with deixis; Children are said to be cognitively egocentric
(Tanz, 1980) and as such, they show an inability to take someone else’s perspective in
either a spatial or a figurative sense, and thus, their failure in dealing with deictic
terms such as personal pronouns. Prior to their learning to use personal pronouns they
will use their name to refer to themselves. When they do start to use them they often
produce errors where they fail to shift reference, such as in Tanz (1980, p52), in this
extract of an exchange between Adam and his mother after Adam fell (age 2;6):
Mother: Did you hurt yourself?
Adam: Yeah.
M: What did you hurt?
A: Hurt your elbow.
The personal pronoun ‘I’ refers to the self from the speaker’s point of view but not
from the hearer’s. Therefore Tanz suggests that the acquisition of deictic categories
would be dependent on developing the concepts of ‘speaker reference’ and ‘hearer

The word deixis derives from the Greek word for indicating. In spoken languages
deixis is considered to be a verbal substitute for the act of pointing. But in visual-
gestural languages such as American Sign Language (ASL), deixis actually is
pointing. For example, the signer indicates himself (first person) by pointing towards
his own torso, and he indicates the addressee by pointing towards the torso of the
addressee. All reference is made within a specially divided space with specific
horizontal planes used for specific references. This cuts down on the type of
ambiguity present in spoken languages because it allows ‘specific co-reference’
(Jarvella and Klein, 1982, p301). For example, the sentence ‘she said she paid her and
then she went shopping’ doesn’t specify which of these personal pronouns are co-
referent, if any, whereas ASL doesn’t allow for this type of ambiguity because the
distinctions are made by pointing to different points in space. This type of spatial
indexing also allows for relatively more freedom of word order than English. It should
be safe to assume from this that deaf children acquiring deictic terms should
encounter less difficulties than hearing children, due to the problems already
mentioned that hearing children face with shifting reference. However, evidence
suggests that deaf children parallel hearing children in their acquisition of deictic
terms. This could be due to the fact that indexicals in ASL share the same properties
as other ASL signs: there are many signs in ASL that are produced by pointing
towards the torso, so there is nothing in the form of indexicals that singles them out as
being different.

Part of the philosophical interest in the area of deixis arises from the question of
whether all indexical expressions can be reduced to a single primary one. Russell
(Levinson, 1995) thought that all indexicals could be translated into expressions
containing this, with the pronoun I translating into the expression ‘the person who is
experiencing this’. but Levinson argues that there is nothing to be gained from this
view. Interestingly, however, Lyons (Tanz, 1980) feels that there may be a pure
deictic particle used by children. In English it can take on forms like /di/ or /da/, and
appears to derive from the demonstratives this and that. This particle reflects the focus
of the child’s attention and serves to direct the attention of the listener. Its meaning,
according to Lyons, is merely ‘look!’ or ‘there!’.

One aspect of deixis that Levinson questions is whether it belongs within the area of
semantics or within that of pragmatics. Certainly, Tanz states that ‘in the type of
semantic theory which focuses on meaning as it resides in words and sentences,
deictic terms are a marginal category, of no special theoretical interest’ (Tanz, 1980,
p10). On the other hand, Levinson argues that as deixis is so deeply grammaticalized,
and if semantics is taken to include all ‘conventional aspects of meaning’, then deixis
should perhaps be considered semantic. He then goes on to argue that it really belongs
within the area of pragmatics because it concerns the relationship between the
structure of language and the context in which it is used. However, he finally suggests
that, as such categorisations are theory-dependent, ‘deixis will probably be found to
straddle the semantics/pragmatics border.

Meaning in language is dependent on context. Deixis links an utterance with its

context through deictic terms such as personal pronouns, demonstratives, verb tense,
etc. We have seen that deixis can be divided into different categories, encoding the
role of the participants in the discourse, the spatial locations relative to their location,
the time spans involved, the social distinctions relative to the role of the participants,
and so on.
Furthermore, we have seen that deixis is organised in an egocentric way, where the
speaker is the central person, with the central location being his, and the central time
being the time of utterance. We have also seen the problems this causes in child
acquisition of deictic terms due to their inability to shift reference, or take someone
else’s perspective. This difficulty is also paralleled in deaf children using ASL owing
to indexicals sharing the same properties as other ASL signs.
Then we looked briefly at whether indexical expressions could be reduced to a single
primary one, finding that this appears to occur quite frequently in children. And
finally, we examined the question regarding the domain to which deixis belongs,
whether semantic or pragmatic.

• Levinson, S. C. (1995). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

• Tanz, C. (1980). Studies in the acquisition of deictic terms. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
• Bellugi, U. and E. S. Klima (1982). “From Gesture to Sign: Deixis in a Visual-
gestural Language”. In Jarvella, R. J. and W. Klein. Speech, Place and Action:
Studies in Deixis and Related Topics. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.