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Deictic expressions


Understanding the definition of deixis, many linguists have presented the definition of deixis variously.  Jaszczolt (2002: 191) states that ‘deixis’ derives from Ancient Greek which means ‘to show’, ‘to point out. Deixis is the phenomenon of encoding contextual information by means of lexical items of grammatical distinctions that provide this information only when paired with this context. In other words, it means lexicalizing or grammaticalizing  contextual information, that is making it into obligatory grammatical or lexical distinctions. They give instructions to the addressee that context has to be consulted in order to grasp the meaning of the utterance. Fromkin in her book “An Introduction to Language (1998: 199) says that in all languages there are many words and expressions whose reference relies entirely on the situational context of the utterance and can only be understood in light of these circumstances. This aspect of pragmatics is called deixis. First and second person pronouns such as; my, mine, you, your, yours, we, ours, and us are always deictic because their reference is entirely dependent on context. You must know who the speaker and listener are in order to interpret them.

Meanwhile, Yule (1996:9) states that deixis is a technical term (from Greek) for one of the most basic things we do with utterances. It means ‘pointing’ is called a deictic expression. Hurford (1984:63) also states that a deictic word is one which takes some element of its meaning from the situation (i.e. the speaker, the addressee, the time and the place) of the utterance in which it is used. Furthermore, Jack Richards, et.al (1985:75) states in their book “Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics” that deixis is a term for a word or phrase which directly relates an utterance to a time, place, or person(s).

In pragmatics and linguistics, deixis is a process whereby words or expressions rely absolutely on context. A word that depends on deictic clues is called a deictic or a deictic word. Pro-forms are generally considered to be deictics, but a finer distinction is often made between personal pro-forms such as I, you, and it (commonly referred to as personal pronouns) and pro-forms that refer to places and times such as now, then, here, there. In most texts, the word deictic implies the latter but not necessarily the former.

It is common for languages to show at least a two-way referential distinction in their deictic system: proximal, i.e. near or closer to the speaker, and distal, i.e. far from the speaker and/or closer to the addressee. English exemplifies this with such pairs as this and that, here and there, etc. in other languages the distinction is three-way: proximal, i.e. near the speaker, medial, i.e. near the addressee, and distal, i.e. far from both.

It is clear that the meaning of utterance in deictic expression can be interpreted through context and we must know who the speaker and listener are being interpreted by certain situation.


It is intuitively obvious that some kinds of expressions of natural language rely heavily on context in their interpretation. Moreover, the temporal specification of a sentence is inherently situation-dependent. One such context-dependent phenomena is deixis. In sentence (1), the pronoun ‘I’, ‘it’ and ‘him’ are expressions that refer to some people and objects respectively.

(1) I gave it to him.

The information who and what they refer to can be retrieved only from the context of utterance rather than from the sentence alone. Such contextually bound expressions are called deictic. ‘Deixis’ derives from Ancient Greek which means ‘to show’, ‘to point out’. Deixis is the phenomenon of encoding contextual information by means of lexical items or grammatical distinctions that provide this information only when paired with this context. In other words, it means lexicalizing or grammaticalizing contextual information, that is making it into obligatory grammatical or lexical distinctions. For example, ‘he’, ‘here’, ‘now’ are such deictic expressions. They give instructions to the addressee that context has to be consulted in order to grasp the meaning of the utterance.

Tense is also a deictic category. In (2), the meaning of ‘then’ can only be retrieved from the situation.

(2) I gave it to him then.

Levinson (1983:55) gives the following example to illusterate the importance of deictic information. Suppose you find a bottle in the sea with the message inside as in (3).

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

The message in itself, devoid of contextual background, is not very informative.

Deictic expressions are also sometimes called indexicals or indexical expressions but some philosophers confine the term ‘indexical’ only to pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ and adverbs ‘here’ and ‘now because their role in a sentence is constant.

Since deictic expressions only require meaning when interpreted by the hearer, they belong to the domain of pragmatics. However, since the resolution of their meaning is necessary in order to know the meaning of the proposition and its truth conditions, then at the same time they are in the domain of semantics. In other words, in the case of deictic expressions, the pragmatic processes of reference resolution intrude into the semantics. Generally, deictic expressions are slots, place-holders for referring expressions, which in turn are provided by the context, that is by the situation, previous discourse, pointing and so forth.

According to Jaszczolt,  Deixis has been  classified in the literature as follows:

a.Person deixis

Person deixis encodes the role of participants in the speech event, such as speaker, addressee, other entities. Person deixis is encoded in pronouns: ‘I’ for the speaker, ‘you’ for the addressee, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘we’, ‘they’, for others. Pronoun system different from language to language: different information is grammaticalized.  Person deixis can be grasped only when we understand the roles of the speaker, source of the utterance, recipient, the target of the utterance, and hearers who are not addressees or targets. Only then can we successfully replace the pronoun and adjectives as in (4) by those in (5) or (6) in processing the utterance.

(4) Give me your hand.

(5) Give him your hand.

(6) I give him my hand.

b.Time deixis

Time deixis encodes temporal units relative to the time of the utterance. Here we distinguish coding time (time of utterance) and receiving time (time of the recovery of the information by the hearer). Tense markers and adverbs of time (‘now’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘next year’) also belong to this category. Time deixis is also oriented towards the in  discourse. ‘Now’ means the time at which the speaker is producing the utterance. It is the coding time, different from the receiving time, although in practice the events of coding and receiving are , with an allowed approximation, co-temporal. The deictic centre can be projected on to the addressee as in (7). ‘Now’ refers to the time at which the addressee learns the truth, which follows the time at which the author of the letter coded the message.

(7) You know the whole truth now. I knew it a week ago, so I wrote this letter.

Another interesting point to notice is that terms such as ‘today’, ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ refer either to the whole day or to a moment, an episode in it, as in (8) and (9) respectively.

(8) Yesterday was Sunday.

(9) I fell off my bike yesterday.

Tense is what makes most sentences deictic. It is necessary to distinguish here grammatical tenses and semantic temporality. For example, sentences (10) and (11) are non-deictic and atemporal, although they have tense in the grammatical sense.

(10) A whale is a mammal.

(11) Cats like warmth.

c. Place deixis

Place deixis encodes spatial locations relative to the interlocutors. Here we allocate demonstratives – proximal and distal in English, and adverbs of place: ‘here’ and ‘there’. Place deixis specifies the location relative to the speaker and the addressee as in ‘ten meters further’, ‘ten miles east of here’, ‘here’, ‘there’.  ‘Here’ as the unit of space the includes the place the location of the speakers at the time of the utterance or a location proximal to the speaker’s location at the time of the utterance the place pointed at if the use of ‘here’ is gestural.  In some cultures, demonstratives can be distinguished on principles other than distance from the speaker, such as (i) close to the addressee, (ii) close to the audience, (iii) close to persons not participating in the event as well as (iv) on the basis of directions – above, below, or even (v) visible-non-visible to the speaker or (vi) upriver-downriver from the speaker, depending on the system of conceptualizing space used in the particular language. Place deixis can also be used for time as in (12).

(12) I live ten minutes from here.

Place deixis presupposes time deixis: the locations are specified with respect to the time of utterance.

It is not always easy to decide whether the use of an expression is deictic or non-deictic. For example, in (13), the tree can be at the back of the car or hidden from view by the car.

(13) The tree is behind the car.

Similarly, in (14), the boy can be placed to Tom’s left or to the left of Tom from the speaker’s point of reference.

(14) The boy is to the left of Tom.

d.Discourse deixis

Discourse deixis is not  one of the basic deictic categories. By means of this device we can refer to portions of discourse, as in ‘in the last paragraph’, ‘this story’, sentence-initial ‘therefore’, ‘in conclusion’, ‘anyway’, ‘all in all’, where the reference is relative to the utterance.  There are also cases of the use of pronouns such as ‘it’ in (15), which, for the lack of a better category, we call discourse-deictic:

(15) I keep my car in the garage but my next-door neighbour keeps it in his drive.

We call this usage of ‘it’ discourse-deictic. C. Lyons (1999:28) calls this an example of an identify of sense anaphora. Discourse deixis also encodes reference to portion of discourse as in (16).

(16)   I am hungry – that is what I said.

Discourse deixis is deictic reference to a portion of a discourse relative to the speaker’s current “location” in the discourse. Example, the use of this to refer to a story one is about to tell in:

(17)   I bet you haven’t heard this story.  (Levisnon 1983:63)

e. Social deixis

Social deixis encodes social relationships and other social distinctions. Social deixis concerns social relationships between participants, their status and relations to the topic of discourse. Relationships that are relevant in their type of deixis include these between the speaker and the addressee, between other participants, the speaker and the object spoken about and soon. Devices used for the purpose of this deixis include varying forms of address, pronouns of politeness, kinship terms and honorifics, in particular addressee and referent honorifics.   

Social deixis is the use of different deictics to express social distinctions. An example is difference between formal and polite pro-forms. Relational social deixis is where the form of word used indicates the relative social status of the addressor and the addressee. For example, one pro-form might be used to address those of higher social rank, another to address those of lessor social rank, another to address those of the same social rank. By contrast, absolute social deixis indicates a social standing irrespective of the social standing of the speaker. Thus, village chiefs might always be addressed by a special pro-form, regardless of whether it is someone below them, above them or at the same level of the social hierarchy who is doing the addressing.

From the five types of deixis above, some linguists (Charles Fillmore, Stephen Levinson), in Jaszczolt, analyze all five types of deixis as instances of the same phenomenon. But discourse and social deixis seem to differ from the three basic categories of person, place and time deixis. They grammaticalize or lexicalize certain distinctions relative to context, but may not need context for interpreting them.


Deictic usage can be gestural and symbolic (as distinguished by Charles Fillmore). Sentences (18) and (19) are examples of gestural usage. While (20) is symbolic. In the symbolic usage, only the general location or time have to be known.

(18) This one (+ gesture) please.

(19) He (+ gesture) is my brother and he (+ gesture) is my father.

(20) We don’t celebrate Easter here. (symbolic)

To compare them:
Gestural usages require a moment by moment physical monitoring of the speech event for  their interpretation, while symbolic usages make reference only to contextual co-ordinates available to participants antecedent to the utterance. Levinson (1983: 65-66)

Most deictic expressions also have non-deictic usage. Non-deictic usages are exemplified in (21) – (26).

(21) You can never tell these days.

(22) There is this man I met in the café.

(23) Now, the next topic to discuss is presupposition.

(24) There you are.

(25) I was doing this and that.

(26) Their garage is opposite Honda’s. (vs. their garage is opposite.)

Pronouns are also used on-deictically when they are anophors in the traditional, grammatical sense of the word. In (27), the referent is established in the previous text rather than provided by the situational context. Hence,  ‘the boy’ is the antecedent for the anaphor ‘he’.

(27) The boy fell off a tree and he was found by the gardener.

For example, in (15) repeated below, the pronoun ‘it’ was used although the referent was a car owned by the neighbour rather than the speaker’s car. So, there is no identity between the antecedent and the anaphor.

(15) I keep my car in the garage but my next-door neighbour keeps it in his drive.

We called this usage of ‘it’ discourse-deictic. C. Lyons (1999:28) calls this an example of an identity of sense anaphora. In (28), ‘she’ represents a bound-variable use, it is bound by a quantifying expression ‘every girl’:

(28) Every girl thinks she should learn to drive.

In (29), the meaning of ‘it’ depends not on ‘a donkey’ but rather on the particular farmer’s own donkey.

(29) Every farmer who owns a donkey beats it.



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