Deixis in Pragmatics: A Guide to Using "Pointer Words"

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  • Have you ever come across a sentence that seems perfectly clear, yet leaves you confused? The culprit might be deixis! Deixis refers to words and phrases that rely on context, particularly the speaker's physical surroundings, to be fully understood. These seemingly simple words, like "here" or "that," shift in meaning depending on the situation. This blog post will delve into the fascinating world of deixis, exploring how these words function and the different types that help us navigate conversations.

Defining Deictic Expression

Understanding certain sentences in English can prove challenging without knowledge of the speaker, the subject, the location, and the timeframe. Take, for instance, the sentence: "You’ll have to bring it back tomorrow because she isn’t here today." Out of context, this statement appears vague, as it relies on specific contextual cues for interpretation – such as the understanding that a delivery driver must return on February 15th to 660 College Drive with a package labeled ‘flowers, handle with care,’ addressed to Lisa Landry.

These context-dependent words are known as deictic expressions. Derived from the Greek word "deixis" meaning "pointing," deixis refers to words or phrases whose meaning hinges on aspects of the communication setting. They shift in meaning depending on the speaker, location, and time of utterance. In essence, deictic expressions rely on the surrounding context for their interpretation.

At its core, deixis is the phenomenon whereby certain words or phrases gain their meaning by pointing to elements in the context of the utterance.

To better understand deixis, let's categorize these expressions:

  1. Person deixis: Pronouns like "I," "you," "her," or specific names like "Peter" or "Louise" all depend on who is speaking and who they are referring to.
  2. Place deixis: Also called spatial deixis, are words like "here," "there," "this," and "that" all shift meaning based on the speaker's location. "Here" could refer to something next to the speaker, while "there" could be anything outside their immediate vicinity.
  3. Time deixis (temporal deixis): "Now," "today," "yesterday," "tomorrow," and similar terms all depend on the time the speaker is speaking. "Tomorrow" spoken today refers to a different day than "tomorrow" spoken yesterday.
  4. Social deixis is another category, encompassing expressions that convey social meaning. This includes address terms like "Madam," "Sir," or "Professor" that indicate social status, or informal terms like "mate" or "love." Historically, English pronoun usage with "thou" and "you" also reflected social status (known as the T/V system).
  5. Finally, discourse deixis refers to expressions like "the former," "the latter," or "when I said that..." These "point" to specific moments within a conversation or written text.

Deixis acts like a verbal pointing system, letting us reference things ("it," "this," "those") and people ("him," "them") in the conversation. This is sometimes called person deixis. Similarly, words like "here," "there," and "near that" pinpoint locations (spatial deixis), while "now," "then," and "last week" function as temporal deixis, all anchored in the speaker's perspective.

Understanding these deictic expressions requires considering the specific person, place, or time the speaker has in mind. We often make a distinction between what's close (using "this," "here," "now") and what's far away ("that," "there," "then").

Deixis can even indicate movement: "go" suggests something moving away from the speaker, while "come" implies movement towards them. Imagine searching for someone, and they finally appear, approaching you. You'd naturally say, "Here she comes!" But if she's walking away, "There she goes!" feels more fitting. This same deictic effect explains why you'd tell someone "Go to bed" if they were already in the room, but "Come to bed" if they were elsewhere.

Deixis can even be used playfully. A bar owner's sign that reads "Free Bear Tomorrow" might entice you to return, but they can always claim you're just a day too early!

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  • References
    • Cruise, A. (2011) Meaning in Language (part 4) (3rd edition) Oxford University Press.
    • Levinson, S. (2006) “Deixis” in L. Horn and G. Ward (eds.) The Handbook of Pragmatics (97 – 121) Blackwell

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