85 10.4 Deixis: Meaning that depends on context

Every language includes deictic expressions: words or phrases that change what they refer to every time they’re spoken. The meaning of these phrases depends crucially on who speaks them, and when and where.


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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.

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