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6.12: Deixis

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    Deixis: Meaning that Depends on Context, in Anderson's Essentials of Linguistics

    Video Script

    We saw in a previous unit that many words have extensions that can change over time while their intensions stay fairly constant. For example, the extension of the phrase the Prime Minister changes every few years, after elections. But there are some words whose extensions change all the time, depending on who says the words and what context they’re in.

    Think about two kids who are fighting over a ball. One kid says, “It’s mine!” and the other says, “It’s mine!” Both of them are uttering the same words, but they each have a different extension for the meaning of the word mine. When the tall kid says mine, they mean that the ball belongs to the tall kid. And when the kid with pigtails says mine, they mean that the ball belongs to the kid with pigtails.

    This phenomenon, where a word’s referent changes depending on who says the word, is called deixis, and words or phrases that allow deixis are called deictic expressions.

    In every language, first-person and second-person pronouns are deictic. Whoever says the word I or me or myself, they’re using the word to refer to themself. And when we utter the word you, we mean the person or people we’re talking to, whoever those people may be. And the first- and second-person possessives are deictic too.

    What about third-person pronouns? Is the pronoun she deictic? Let’s look at an example. Suppose Sam says, “The prof said she would give us all A’s.” The pronoun she is ambiguous — it could refer to any feminine person, so it’s possible that Sam means that the prof said that the TA or some other prof would give all A’s, but the likeliest interpretation is that she refers to the prof. Now what happens if Tai says, “The prof said she would give us all A’s”? The word she is still ambiguous, but in exactly the same ways — it could still refer to the prof, or it could refer to some other feminine person. The potential referent for the word she does not depend on who is uttering the sentence, so it’s not a deictic expression.

    So first- and second-person pronouns and possessives are deictic in every language. But that’s not the only place that deixis happens in language. Lots of languages also have spatial deixis, whose referent depends on the location of the person who utters them.

    Imagine this conversation between Sam and Tai, who live in different cities: Sam lives in Hamilton and Tai lives in Toronto. They’ve been talking about getting together on the weekend. Sam says, “Are you coming here this weekend?” and Tai replies, “No, I thought you were coming here!” Both of them utter the word here, but each one is referring to a different place — for Sam, the word here refers to Hamilton, but for Tai, here means Toronto. The referent for the word here depends on the location of the person who says it.

    English has some pairs of deictic expressions that depend on location. Here indicates some relative proximity to the speaker, while there means something that is farther away from the speaker. The linguistics labels for this near/far distinction are proximal and distal. The English demonstrative determiners also make a distinction between proximal and distal: this and these refer to things that are closer to the speaker, and that and those refer to things that are farther away. English even has verbs that express this distinction: come and bring refer to moving towards the speaker, while go and take mean moving away from the speaker.

    Many languages make a three-way distinction in spatial deixis. In Spanish, for example, este corresponds roughly to English this, while ese and aquel both get translated as that. But aquel is definitely far away, while ese is farther away than este but not as far as aquel. This intermediate spatial distinction is labelled medial. Plenty of other languages, like Arabic and Korean, also have a three-way distinction. In fact, English used to have a proximal-medial-distal distinction as well, with the word yon expressing the distal, but yon has pretty much vanished from modern English.

    Languages also have ways of expressing temporal deixis. Suppose you go to your prof’s office to ask some questions and you find a note on the door that says, “Working from home today. I’ll be in the office tomorrow.” You have no way of knowing what day they’re working from home and what day they’ll be in the office unless you know what day the note was written, because today means whatever day they posted the note and tomorrow means whatever day comes after that day. Yesterday obviously works the same way: its referent is relative to when it gets uttered, and the same is true for now and then, soon and later. English also has expressions like three weeks ago and next year that are deictic too.

    In fact, even the tense morphology on verbs is deictic. Suppose you get a letter from your aunt in the mail and it hasn’t got a date on it. It’s a little beat up and it looks like maybe it got lost in the system for a while. The letter has some news about the family and includes the sentence, “Alex will spend the summer planting trees.” Now, because this sentence has a future tense verb in it, you know that the tree-planting was set to happen some time after the letter was written, but without knowing when the letter was written, you can’t know whether Alex has already planted trees or is still planning to do it in the future or is planting trees right this minute. The time that the future tense refers to depends on when the verb was spoken, or in this case, written.

    To sum up, every language has deictic words, phrases or expressions that refer to something different depending on who speaks or writes them, and in what context. The most common kinds of deictic expressions are personal, depending on the identity of the speaker, spatial, which depend on where the speaker is when they say the phrase, and temporal, which depend on the time the speaker says the phrase.

    Check Yourself

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    What kind of deixis is illustrated by the bolded part of this sentence?

    "I heard this course was supposed to be easy."

    • personal deixis
    • spatial deixis
    • temporal deixis
    • not a deictic expression

    "Spatial deixis" and "temporal deixis"

    The reason: This usually implies a difference in space related to whoever is speaking, and/or differences in time related to whoever is speaking.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    What kind of deixis is illustrated by the bolded part of this sentence?

    "Stan told Bill his brother had phoned."

    • personal deixis
    • spatial deixis
    • temporal deixis
    • not a deictic expression

    "Personal deixis"

    The reason: His implies a difference in personal relationship related to whoever is speaking.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Which part of this sentence is deictic?

    "Sam and Tai met five years ago."

    • Sam and Tai
    • met
    • five years
    • five years ago

    "Five years ago"

    The reason: Both the amount of time and the term ago create a difference in temporal deixis.

    Deixis, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    What Catherine explains above is what you need to know about deixis. There's a little bit more I want to say, because this is an area that has fascinated me for a very long time. I've done a little research on it, published a couple papers on it, but mostly, this is just an area of complete fascination. Maybe it's because English doesn't do as much with deixis as other languages, with respect to verbal inflection. That's really where we're going to talk about this.

    As far as what deixis is, Catherine has already explained this above. she does a really great job of it. Remember that personal deixis is having to do with first and second person pronouns and the demonstrative. Place deixis is directions, this concept of here versus there versus yonder. Time deixis usually is focused on two things: one is the adverbs that we use, like now, then, or later. It also involves more importantly, for the rest of this video, verbal inflection, or specifically what we call in linguistics TAM (tense, aspect, mood).

    If you've ever taken a foreign language class—especially if it was an Indo-European language or Japanese or Korean or anything that has a lot of verbal inflection—then you've heard these terms before at least a couple of them, if not all three of them. When I teach Spanish, I do subject my students to this, because I think it's an important aspect to remember, that those little bits that we put on to a verb, all those inflectional affixes, they're doing something. Let's get into it a little bit, let's unpack what this mean.

    Tense is the easy one, because tense only has three options at most: past, present, future. That's it, there is no other tense beyond past, present or future. This is one of my pet peeves when I read a grammar book that talks about ‘the progressive tense’ or ‘the preterite tense’. Those are not tenses at all. We only have three possibilities. That does not mean that all languages have three tenses; in fact, that's not the case. Most Indo-European languages have all three, but many languages around the world, only have two: past and non-past is the typical definition. Some languages do not have any actual tense markers—think the Sino-Tibetan languages, where there are no markers of any kind for anything. They use adverbs of some kind, to tell you when something happened.

    A lot of languages that have inflection—not the East and Southeast Asian languages that we've talked about but other languages—may not have tense markers they do have aspect markers. I'm thinking especially the languages throughout Central America and in parts of the islands in and around Australia. We're talking about languages that may not have a past tense, present tense, or future tense, as far as their inflections. Yet, they do have stuff like ‘ongoing’ or ‘at a specific moment’ or ‘kind of in the past, but not really’. Those are all aspects. Aspect is really just a manipulation of time; you're describing how the time transgressed.

    Some of these terms that I'm going to show you, you may have seen, especially if you learned a grammar of a foreign language. Many of them might be new to you, so I'll explain.

    • Iterative or Durative: this is a really common one, especially in the Indo-European languages, but even outside. This is when we're talking about time that goes over a stretch, a period. During…duration. Iterative and durative, technically speaking, are slightly different but for your purposes they're the same.
    • Punctual or Aorist: technically speaking, those are slightly different, but for your purposes we’ll keep them together. Punctual, at a specific moment in time. For example, if you learned a Romance language or if you learned a Germanic language, you probably heard of the perfect or preterite, maybe the compositional past tense. You've heard of the imperfect, also. Well, the imperfect is durative and the perfect/preterite is punctual. If you think about that difference about how you would say in any of these languages, ‘I went to the store at three o'clock yesterday’ versus ‘I was going to the market when and then there's something else happened.’ Those two versions of ‘go’ in any Germanic or Romance language (and most Indo-European languages) are going to be two totally different forms and that has to do with aspect.
    • Habitual or Imperfective: frequently they can get mixed into this iterative/durative. But it often also gets split out, especially in many languages in Africa and Niger Congo languages. Habitual is just what you think it is: something that used to happen or happens repetitively recursively. Imperfective is along those same lines.

    All three of these aspects, English doesn't really do, at least not anymore. We used to, but that's for another time. What we do have are the next two.

    • Perfective: At that time and before. ‘I have eaten today’ or ‘I will have read that book for next week’.
    • Progressive or Continuous: ‘I am talking to my mother, right now’, ‘my brother is working right now’.

    Those are both aspects that we do have an English; you can see them not just an English, but in other languages, as they're very common. The last one is a little less common.

    • Inchoative: usually it talks about the start of something. Sometimes it gets folded into the punctual. In some languages, many indigenous languages in North America, have inchoative.

    These are all different aspects. Some are pervasive; you frequently will see a progressive and a perfective, you frequently see either habitual or durative or both. You may not have all of them, and certainly English is a great example of this, because we don't have these as inflections anymore. We tend to have them as compound verb phrases; they use auxiliaries and that kind of thing. However, if you go back 800 years, we used to have quite a bit of this.

    That's tense and that's aspect. The fun one, at least for me, is mood. Don't be scared off; you're going to see a lot of this information and think it's all on the semantics quiz or the meaning quiz. It's not I promise. I show you this to get you to understand all of these things. When you are in an environment where you having to learn a new language, and it has all these different things that you do to the verb, and you weren't sure what was going on, some of it is aspect and some of it is mood.

    The way I like to think about mood is condition or context; it is the context under with something happens. We have three main moods and then of course they gets split out from there.

    • The first one is interrogative, as in a question and, yes, in many languages it is an inflection on the verb. When you want to make a question, instead of a question word or changing intonation pattern, you put an inflection on the verb.

    You also have realis and irrealis. Let's break this down.

    • Realis = something real, so something that is observable in many cases. The one you are familiar with, is indicative or sometimes called declarative. I know you're aware of this, because that's pretty much what we use in English; we really don't have much else in the term of mood anymore. If you are studying another Indo-European language, certainly indicative or declarative is what we focus on.
    • But there's one other realis mood and it's really common in the Semitic languages, and that is the energetic. Energetic is really cool; it is when you want to say that something is strongly believed by the speaker, or the speaker wishes to really emphasize it put energy to it. You see here that there is this energetic [la-], this affix that gets attached to a verb. Let's take the verb that means like 'a strong obligation', 'must' or 'should', something like that, and if you stick [la-] in front of it, it means that 'she must do something' so 'she must' right okay. There's that [ktb], by the way, that we saw earlier in morphology when we talked about infixation; I'm bringing up here again.

    This is cool but where the fun really begins. This is a lot of information don't worry, you do not have to remember all of it, this is just to kind of give you some context to explain a little bit more.

    • Irrealis: what funkiness happens in so many different languages, with respect to verbs, frequently involves irrealis
      • The one that probably most of you have heard of before is called the subjunctive. You've probably heard that before, especially if you learned an Indo-European language. Subjunctive is all over the place; everybody has a subjunctive. Technically, English still has a subjunctive, although it's dying very quickly. It went from about two generations ag, people regularly using a subjunctive, to almost no one does anymore unless you're speaking legal terms (that's a different story). Subjunctive is a hypothetical or unlikely events, along those lines.
      • You also can have in many languages an optative, if you ever go learn Ancient Greek or Sanskrit, you will learn about the optative. This is when you're talking about a hope or a wish.
      • A desiderative is also a wish, although there's not too many examples of those
      • A dubitative implies doubt.

    In the Indo-European languages, pretty much all of those have been combined into what we now call this subjunctive; there are a couple of Indo-European languages that do have a dubitative, but not as often. To give you a couple of examples:

    • Optative: I usually see this involved with a deity. You are praying to a deity that something happens so 'may you have a good trip', 'May God make it that you have a good trip' or whichever deity you want. For those that know Spanish and you ever wondered what ojalá [oxalá] is, ojalá is a borrowed piece from Arabic from when the Moors were in Spain and Portugal, and it is borrowed off of their optative. It just got co-opted into old Spanish and Portuguese, although it's died out now in Portuguese, but it did use to exist. Ojalá, Allah, as in God.
    • Desiderative: This really only exists currently in Japanese; it used to exist in Sanskrit and then Proto-Indo-European and maybe a few other ancient languages. The desiderative is this concept of 'I really wish' or 'I really want something to happen'. To say, 'I desire to go there', 'I want to go there'. Watashi-wa asoko-ni ikitai; that -tai is the desiderative.
    • Dubitative: this does exist in a few more languages; the only Indo-European language that has it is Bulgarian. It is thought that it got it from Turkish because in the Altaic languages, this does exist. What is really cool is that there are a number of Native American languages, mostly in northern North America, like Ojibwe, is one of them. We see the dubitative as implying doubt; in Ojibwe here's an example: 'he is in Baawitigon today' (I probably butchered that I apologize), and then instead of ayaa, which is 'to be' it's ayaadog, meaning, 'I guess he is in Baawitigong today' or 'he might be in Baawitigong today'.

    That's the subjunctive and its counterparts, but there are other irrealis; imperative, hypothetical and inferential are the three main categories, and then they have subcategories off of that.

    • Imperative: it's a direct command. Even in English, there's something that's a little different about a direct command.
      • The jussive, think justice, and frequently, this is a judge or some kind of ranking official imparting a sentence or something along those lines. When we talked about performative verbs, the jussive can come into play in certain languages. This concept of you're imploring, like 'let him live', 'let her go', something along those lines. It does exist in quite a few languages.
    • Within the hypotheticals, we're talking about things that are contrary to fact: 'if I had a million dollars, I would buy a house', that kind of hypothetical.
      • There's also the potential, which is the conditional in most Indo-European languages. Those are heavily tied together, and in fact most languages, if you have a conditional, you also have something hypothetical as well. The potential is also related to this.
    • Inferential: this is a really interesting one, you see this in the Balkans and you see this in Turkish, but you don't see it too much beyond that. It's this concept of you did not witness something directly—that would be declarative—but you heard about it, you inferred information, you got it third party. That's a really interesting way to say that something happened from what you hear, not what you observed directly.

    The big takeaway with respect to deixis is that it is highly contextual; that's why it's part of pragmatics. It is highly inflectional, that we use this to inflect all sorts of meaning in our verbs. Equally important, deixis is one of those things that as we learn a new language, it is incredibly difficult to learn. It is a nuance that is not something that is easy to pick up, especially if it is a type of deixis that we are not used to. Native English speakers, when you go to learn a language that has all sorts of inflection, that inflection is deixis. It explains why sometimes it's really difficult to learn what those little pieces mean. But more on that later.

    How Many Verb Tense Are There in English?

    Watch this TedEd video in which Anna Ananichuk explains a bit more about time deixis with respect to English verb forms. (The video is captioned.)

    6.12: Deixis is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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