Deixis and Distance

Term Paper, 2004

21 Pages, Grade: 1.7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Deixis – Definition

3 History – Bühler’s Sprachtheorie

4 Some Properties of Deixis

5 Deictic Categories
5.1 Person Deixis
5.2 Social Deixis
5.3 Time Deixis
5.4 Place Deixis
5.5 Discourse Deixis

6 Deixis and Grammar

7 Deixis between Semantics and Pragmatics

8 Conclusion

9 Bibliography

1 Introduction

As the information system in our modern technology world becomes more and more important, the research about language and especially commuication has grown to a major element of today’s scholarship. Pragmatics, as a linguistic science dealing with communication, generally is “concerned with the study of meaning as communicated by a speaker (or writer) and interpreted by a listener (or reader)”(see Yule,1996: 3). Thus, not the actual meaning of the words are decisive, but the interpretation of the utterance.

A simple principle of language use is the fact, that the more two speakers have in common, the less language they will need to use to identify familiar things. When two persons share the same physical context, the speaker frequently uses demonstratives, pronouns, adverbs and other grammatical features to establish a relationship between language and context. We call these words indexicals and the function of language deictic.

In today’s society deictic usage of laguage becomes more and more problematic. Lyon states: “The facts of deixis should act as a constant reminder […] that natural languages are primarily desigend, so to speak, for use in face-to-face interaction, and thus there are limits to the extent to which they can be analysed […]” (Lyons, 1977 in Levinson, 1983: 54). The permanent application of communicative aids like computers, cellphones or pagers evokes a lack of face-to-face interaction and increases the amount of disaccords during a conversation. In this paper I will illustrate and illuminate the different modes of deictic expressions and ascribe it to the problem of understanding in today’s society.

First, I will give a short definition of deixis as well as a historical grading. Below, I will concentrate on the three major categories person, place and time and briefly on the subcategories social and discourse deixis. Considering as examples the specific categories and their special features will be described and analysed. I conclude with a brief survey about grammar and whether the field of deixis should be classified in pragmatics or in semantics. Finally, I will give a short conclusion that works up the problem of understanding via deictic expression in today’s society.

2 Deixis - Definition

When you consider pragmatics as the study of the use of language in context, deixis is the most obvious linguistic sign in which the relationship between language and context is reflected in the structures of langauges themselves. The term deixis (derived from the Greek word δείξις meaning pointing or indicating) deals with the use of certain linguistic expressions to locate subjects in spatio-temporal, social and discoursal context (see Marmaridou, 2000: 65). Traditionally, deictic expressions are subdivided into the three major categories of person, place and time. Of late one can add the categories of social and discourse deixis which I will only discuss briefly. Deictic expressions encode specific aspects of the speech event and can only be understood in the immediate context. Therefore deictic expressions are mostly used in face-to-face spoken interaction where contextual parameters can be taken into account easily. To see how important the sharing of the same physical context by speaker and hearer is, imagine a situation where such information is lacking:

(1) Meet me here a week from now with a stick about this big.

In this case it is impossible to understand the exact meaning of the utterance unless we know who to meet, where or when to meet him or her, or how big a stick should be (see Levinson, 1983: 55).

3 History – Bühler’s Sprachtheorie

As I already mentioned the term deixis is borrowed from the greek word for pointing or indicating. In its recent meaning it refers to the theory of language by Karl Bühler published in 1934 and translated into English by D. Fraser Goodwin in 1963. In his “Sprachtheorie” Bühler eleborated the organon model which can be seen as the most important forerunner for deixis.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

By using this model Bühler presents language as a tool or organum for a person who is communicating with another. During a communication the speaker (sender) is talking to the listener (receiver) about the world. In every single utterance there are three main functions that can be distinguished: representation, expression and appeal. Usually one of them is dominating, object-oriented communication is representative, communication that is focused on the feelings of the speaker is expressive and communication that is focused on the listener is an appeal. The circle in the middle symbolizes the concrete given sound, the triangle above the meaning of the sound. Where the triangle is bigger than the circle there is a meaning lacking an expression in sound. In those places where the circle is bigger than the triangle the sound contains information that lacks meaning.

In further researches (“Zweifeldtheorie”) Bühler subdivides the lexicon of a language into the fields of symbol words and the field of deicitic words. The symbol word field represents language by using words that are independent of the actual situation. The address “Wall Street No. 10” denotates always the same thing, the symbol exhibits an invariable content. The deictic word field serves as an aid for pointing. In accordance with Bühler pointing aids like pronouns (“I”,”you”,”he”) and deictic time and place expressions (“now”, “here”, “there”) can replace the pointing finger as a natural instrument. These expressions are variable and can therefore shift the deictic center between speaker and listener. This deictic center is the zero point or origo during a conversation which is fixed by the person who is speaking, the time of utterance and the place of utterance.

4 Some Properties of Deixis

Essential for the understanding of deictic expressions is the distinction between gestural and symbolic usage.

Gestural usage means that an expression can only be understood properly with a reference to a physical aspect of the communicative situation.

(2) This one’s a genuine, but this one’s a fake.

The addressee can only interprete this utterance if the speaker either establishes an eye-contact or physically indicates the ment object on any other way.

Symbolic usage means that utterances can only be interpreted if one knows certain aspects of the communicative situation.

(3) This city is really beautiful.

In this case it is sufficient to know in which context the term has been uttered, therefore the general location of the speaker must be clear.

Additionally, it is possible to distinguish besides gesutral and symbolic usage between deictic and non-deictic usage of deictic terms (anaphoric vs. non-anaphoric).

(4) Jane kicked her shoes off and then she picked up a paper.

The idexical she in (4) has been considered non-deictic usage of deictic terms. In this case the word she refers to a person which has been identified earlier in the discourse, namely Jane.

Another important characteristic of all deictic modes appears to be the egocentricity. Deixis is organized relative to specific parameters, generally the speaker at the deictic center of fixed reference point. Person deixis is related to the role of the speaker, time deixis is related to the time in which the speaker produces the utterance and place deixis concers the place of the speaker at the time of the utterance. The fact that the speaker generally constitutes the deictic center makes the egocentricity an important characteristic throughout the description of deictic expressions.

5 Deictic categories

After I have discussed certain problems which arise during talking about deixis I will now present the three major categories of deictic expressions (person, time and place) and will give a brief overview of social and discourse deixis. This distinction should show that it is not possible to treat them equally and that every category has to be analysed on its own although special features are shared and thus some categories overlap.

5.1 Person Deixis

Person deixis concerns the encoding of the role of participants in the speech event in which the utterance in question is delivered” (Levinson, 1983: 62). Therefore it primarily refers to the speaker as the deictic center of the speech event and the addressee. By using first person pronouns the speaker refers to himself as a participant, by using the second person pronouns to one or more addressees and by using a third person pronoun he refers to a person or an object that is neither the speaker nor the addressee. In some languages, person deixis also encodes other participant roles, such as a source who is not the hearer or a hearer who is not the addressee.

(5) It’s now closing time. Thank you for your custom and we hope to see

you again.

If utterance (5) is uttered via a microphone by a shop assistant, he / she is the speaker but not the source. Since such distinctions as illustrated above are not grammaticalized in the English language, they need to be interpreted by the listener with the help of other contextual parameters.

While persons take turns in a conversation the deictic center (origo) switches from speaker to addresse and back again (conversation shift):

(6) A: Did you borrow me a pen?

B: Yes, I lent you a pen.

This example shows that in a normal conversation there are shifts from I to you or me to you constantly between the participants.

In English there is an ambiguity in the use of the first person plural pronoun: “we does not mean plural speakers in the same way that they means more than on third person entity” (Lyons, 1968 in Levinson, 1983: 69). In some other languages there are two first person plural forms that distinguish between an exclusive we (self-reference in plural excluding the addressee) and an inclusive we (self-reference in plural including the addressee.

While this distinction can not be grammaticalized English people manifest other contextual parameters. For instance the indirect distinguishing feature that indicates the inclusive we in English is the contraction from let us to let’s:

(7) Let’s go to the cinema.

(8) Let’s go to see you tommorow.

Example (7) only seems comprehensible if the addressee is included, example (8) doesn’t make sense the way it is used here.

Sometimes the use of we is also socially motivated, like examples (9) and (10) show:

(9) Why don’t we go to the cinema.

(10) We would like to set up a nursery school within the premises.

While the interlocutor in example (9) obviously includes the addresse, the person in example (10) excludes the listeners but includes the company he represents. Only with reference to the social parameters of the speech event the utterances can be understood properly.

5.2 Social Deixis

Social deixis concerns “that aspect of sentences which reflect or establish or are determined by certain realities of the social situation in which the speech act occurs” (Fillmore, 1975 in Levinson, 1983: 89). Social deictic expressions are therefore those aspects of language structure that encode social relationship between the participants or between one of them and another person or entity. Social deictic information can be subdivided into two basic kinds, the relational and the absolute. The former is the more important which typically expresses relations. There are three major categories of relational social deictic expressions, called honorifics (expressions that indicate higher status).

The most obvious one is the referent honorific system, which can be found in polite pronouns and titles of address. In some languages social contrast is encoded within person deixis by differentiating between the pronouns used for a familiar or a non-familiar addressee. In French, German and Spanish there is no difference between the second person singular polite form and the second person plural form. By that it is possible for the speaker to indicate something about the relation to the addressee. In French, for instance, tu shows familiarity and vous indicates non-familiarity.

(11) Tu parle français?

(12) Vous parlez français?

Both utterances address a single person, although example (12) could also be directed at more than one addressee. Example (11) is addressed to a person that is from the same social level (proximal form), in example (12) the speaker marks a difference between the social status by using a distal expression (the receiver must be higher, older or more powerful). Other languages even have a pronominal system much richer than the European ones. The Japanese language also differenciates between the sex of the speaker, the social status of the referent and a degree of intimacy with the referent. The second person singular form kimi for instance can be glossed you, addressed by this intimate male speaker (see Levinson, 1983: 70).

The second category is the addressee honorific system, generally used in South East Asian languages. Here it is possible to encode respect to the addressee without any reference to him. An utterance like “The soup is hot” can encode respect when taking a linguistic alternate (e.g. for soup).

The third one is the bystander honorific system, considering the speaker and the bystander (a non-participating hearer).

The absolute socially deictic information are for example forms reserved for certain speakers, called authorized speaker. Thais distinguish between two particles, from which the polite form is used by male speakers and the corresponding form for femal speakers (khráb vs. khá). Moreover, there is a special first person pronoun reserved for the Japanese Emperor in Japan. Other absolute socially deictic information are titles, which are for authorized recipients (e.g. Your Honour, Mr President).

Although the English language does not carry so many social implications like this the different social status can be emphazised by using other honorifics. One way is to change the second person form into a third person form for an either ironic or accusatory purpose:

(13) Shouldn’t his highness stay in bed.

(14) Somebody didn’t clean up after himself.

In example (13) the third person form is used to emphazise the idleness in an ironic way, example (14) the accusation “You didn’t clean up” is weakened to a less direct form.

As you can see in the presented description of person and social deixis it becomes clear that it is difficult to discuss these two categories without reference to each other. It is suggested that social deixis should not constitute an own deictic system and should rather be an additional, complementary feature of person deixis (see Marmaridou, 2000: 81).

5.3 Time Deixis

Time deixis concerns the encoding of temporal points and spans relative to the time at which an utterance was spoken (or a written message inscribed)“ (Levinson, 1983: 62). In this case time deixis interacts in calendrical and non-calendrical units. In general, time is measured in cycles of days and nights, months, seasons and years. These units can either serve as measurements relative to a fixed origo that is specified on an absolute time measurement scale or as measurements relative to a fixed point of interest:

(15) She left last month.

(16) She left in December 2004.

In utterance (15) the time unit is marked relative to the deictic center, in utterance (16) the time unit refers to an absolute origo.

Again, time deixis emphazises the egocentricity, because it refers to the participant role.Therefore it is important to differenciate between the time an utterance is actually produced (coding time or CT) and the time of reception by the addressee (receiving time or RT). If the CT and the RT are identical we speak about deictic simultaneity. When the CT and the RT fall apart difficulties can arise in the decision whether the deictic center will remain on the speaker or will be shifted to the addressee (deictic projection).

(17) This programme is being recorded today, Wednesday, April 1st, to be relayed next Thursday.

(18) This programme was recorded last Wednesday, April 1st, to be relayed

In example (17) the deictic center stays on the CT, in example (18) it is projected on the RT.

The most common time deictic expressions are the adverbs now and then, soon and recently and the verb tense (past, present, future). Adverbs like today, yesterday or tomorrow are mingled with absolute units of time and can therefore only be interpreted properly if the addressee knows the relevant utterance time.

(19) Free beer tomorrow.

If we notice this sign outside a bar and come back the next day we will still be one day too early for free drinks because the CT cannot be fixed and the relevant utterance time is not clear.


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Deixis and Distance
University of Duisburg-Essen
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This paper illustrates and illuminates the different modes of deictic expressions in general and ascribe it to the problem of understanding in today's society.
Deixis, Distance, Pragmatics
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Tanja Winterberg (Author), 2004, Deixis and Distance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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