The word ‘deixis’ comes from Greek, meaning ‘pointing, indicating’. It is the marking of the orientation or position of entities and events with respect to certain points of reference. Some sentences in English are impossible to understand if we don’t know who is speaking. Expressions like these are called deictic expressions.

Deixis is the first area of study in Linguistic Pragmatics that has caught the attention of scholars.In 1954, the Israeli Philosopher Yehoshua Bar-Hillel wrote an article “Indexical Expressions”. Since then the study of Indexical or deictics has always been one of the central topic in Pragmatics. Deixis belongs within the domain of Pragmatics, because it directly concern the relationship between the structure of language and the concept in which they are used ( Levinson;1995:55).

(Filmore, 1966: 220) defines Deixis as the name given to those aspects of language whose interpretation is relative to the occation of utterance. Deixis is a term for a word or phrase which directly relates an utterance to a time, place or person (s). It refers to the phenomenon wherein understanding the meaning of certain words and phrases in an utterance requires contextual information. In other words, Deixis helps us to identify things in time and space.

Deictic Expressions/ Indexical

Deixis means ‘pointing’ via language. Any linguistic form used to achieve this ‘pointing’ is called a deictic expression or ‘Indexical’. Deictic expressions relate the content of an utterance to the speaker, the addressee, and the time and place of utterance. It is used to indicate something in the immediate context. So a deictic expression encodes information in context (Yule, 1996). Grammatical features tied directly to the circumstances of utterance (Levinson1983: 54).

Thus if I say to you:

1. Come over here and look at this!

“here” refers to where I am as I speak, “come” refers to a direction that depends on where “here” is, and “this” refers to e.g. something I am pointing at. They are therefore deictic.

2. Yesterday he gave me a gold watch.

Here, the meaning of “yesterday” depends on the time of speaking, and “me” depends on the identity of the speaker. Moreover, “gave” is also a deictic element, as it locates the act in relation to the time of speaking. “A gold watch” however isn’t. (Gold watches are gold watches.)

Philosophical Approaches

The topic of Deixis or  indexical expression (indexicals) symbolically points to (or indicates) some state of affairs. For example, I refers to whoever is speaking; now refers to the time at which that word is uttered; and here refers to the place of utterance.

Within  linguistic viewdeixis refers to the phenomenon wherein understanding the meaning of certain words and phrases in an utterance requires contextual information. Words are deictic if their semantic meaning is fixed but their denotational meaning varies depending on time and/or place. Words or phrases that require contextual information to convey any meaning – for example, English pronouns – are deictic, for example:

(1) Letizia de Ramolino was the mother of Napoleon.

our identification:

  • it would be true,
  • there was a person known as Letizia de Ramolino
  • She was the mother of Napoleon.
  • the facts of history

(2) I am the mother of Napoleon.

our Identification:

  • The truth cannot be assessed
  • Depend on who the speaker of “I” is
  • “I” is a deictic expression.

(3) I’ll be back in an hour.

(because we don’t know when it was written, we cannot know when the writer will return)

Or suppose we find a bottle in the sea, and inside it a message:

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

(We don’t know who to meet, where or when to meet him or her or how big a stick to bring)

Descriptive Approach

Traditional categories of Deixis

  • — Person
  • — Place
  • — Time
  • — Discourse
  • — Social

Deictic system tends to face to face conversational context. Deictic centre is speaker centric.

  • —Central person          : speaker
  • —Central time              : speaker utterance time
  • —Central place             : speaker’s location
  • —Discourse centre      : the point of speaker’s utterance
  • Social centre             : speaker’s status, rank.

Deictic usage

1. Gestural usage

Can only be interpreted with reference to an audio visual tactile and physical movement.

2. Symbolic usage

It just needs knowledge spatial and temporal to interpret.

Non- deictic

1. Anaphoric

Some term picks out as referent the same entity that some prior term in the discourse picked out.

2. Non-anaphoric

Relativized to the text instead of to the situation of utterance.

Types of Deixis

Personal deixis

It generally comments about ourselves or our interlocutors. Personal deixis is deictic reference to the participant role of a referent, such as the speaker, the addressee, and referents which are neither speaker nor addressee.

Personal deixis deals with the grammatical persons within an utterance, (1) those directly involved (e.g. the speaker, the addressee), (2) those not directly involved (e.g. over hearers—those who hear the utterance but who are not being directly addressed), and (3) those mentioned in the utterance. It can switch. The deictic centre can move from participant to participant.

In English, the distinctions are generally indicated by pronouns. The following examples show how. (The person deictic terms are in italics)

  • —I am going to the movies.
  • —Would you like to have dinner?
  • They tried to hurt me, but he came to the rescue.

Spatial (place) deixis

Place deixis, also known as space/ spatial deixis, related to the spatial locations relevant to an utterance. Similarly to person deixis, the locations may be either those of the speaker and addressee or those of persons or objects being referred to. The most famous English examples are the adverbs “here” and “there” and the demonstratives “this” and “that”.

  • —I enjoy living in this city.
  • —Here is where we will place the statue.
  • —She was sitting over there.

Unless otherwise specified, Spatial deictic terms are generally understood to be relative to the location of the speaker, as in

  • —  The shop is across the street.

Spatial deixis indicate distance or proximity from the speaker, such as physical distance or proximity and mental and psychological distance or proximity  (Ex. deictic projection in the direct speech). For example,

  • —  I am not here now.

This can be semantically illogical but pragmatically it can be true since it’s an utterance recorded on phone answering machine. The word “now” refers to any time someone tries to call me, and not to when I actually record the words.

  • —  I was looking at this little puppy in a cage with such a sad look oh her face. It was like, “Oh, I’m so unhappy here, will you set me free?”

This is an utterance of someone who visits to a pet store and he is looking for his lost pet. The word “here” of the cage is not the actual physical location of the person uttering the words (the speaker), but is instead of the location of that person performing in the role of the puppy. Do you remember Ace Ventura in Pet detective the movie?

Temporal deixis

Time, or temporal, deixis concerns itself with the various times involved in and referred to in an utterance. This includes time adverbs like “now”, “then”, “soon”, and so forth, and also different tenses.

  • —Now > proximal
  • —Then > distal (both past and future)
  • —Temporal events that move toward us (into view) > this weekend
  • —Temporal events that move away from us (out of view)
  • —Choice of the verb tenses >Present – proximal form, Past – distal form, not only in time but also because unlikely or impossible, example: If I had a yacht.

The distal forms of temporal deixis are used to communicate not only distance from current time but also distance from current reality or facts.

Textual (discourse) deixis

Textual deixis are the orientation of an utterance with respect to other utterances in a string of utterances, e.g. He started to swear at me and curse. That made me even angrier.

It concerns the use of expression within some utterances to refer to some portion of the discourse that contains those utterances. It is a number of other ways in which an utterance signals its relation to surrounding text.

The Distinction between Discourse and Anaphora

  • —Anaphora concerns the use of a pronoun to refer to the same referent as some prior term. E.g.: Harry’s a sweetheart; he’s also considerate.
  • —Discourse deictic refers to a linguistics expression. E.g.:

A: that’s a rhinoceros

            B: spell it for me

Nevertheless, in principle the distinction is clear:

  • Where a pronoun refers to a linguistics expression itself, it is discourse deictic.
  • Where a pronoun refers to the same entity as a prior linguistics expression refers to, it anaphoric.

A number of significant problems for the distinction between anaphora and discourse deixis:

1. Firstly, there are the so-called pronoun of laziness (Geach, 1962: 125).

E.g.: The man who gave his paycheck to his wife was wiser than the man who gave it to his mistress.

2. Secondly, in exchange like

A: I’ve never seen him

B: That’s a lie

3. Thirdly, Lyons points out that if one thinks of anaphora as reference to entities already established in the domain of discourse.

4. Then the ways in which they are referred to in anaphoric reference commonly make use of the order in which they were introduced by the discourse itself.

Social deixis

Concern 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, 1975:76).

Two basic kinds of socially deictic information are relational and absolute. The relational variety is the most important, and the relations that typically get expression are those between:

  1. Speaker and referent (e.g. referent honorifics)
  2. Speaker and addressee (e.g. addressee honorifics)
  3. Speaker and bystander (e.g. Bystander or audience honorifics)
  4. Speaker and setting (e.g. Formality levels)

The absolute type forms reserved for certain speakers, in which case we may talk of authorized speakers. E.g.: in Thai the morpheme “khrab” is a polite particle that can only be used by male speaker, for female speakers being “kha”(Haas, 1964). It also forms reserved for authorized recipients, including restriction on most titles of Address (Your Honor, Mr. President, etc).


Levinson, S. 1983. Pragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mey, J. 1993. Pragmatics. An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.

Thomas, J. 1995. Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics. London: Longman.

Yule, G. 1996. Pragmatics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About nawangwulan19

Be GREAT in ACT, as you've been in THOUGHT!!!

Posted on April 11, 2013, in Learning English, Pragmatics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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