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What Is Deixis?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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Deixis is a linguistic concept that relates to words and phrases. Some words or phrases are said to be deictic. These words and phrases have a fixed semantic meaning, but their exact meaning depends on a greater context. Some also describe these words or phrases as ones that change according to “time or place,” but the underlying idea is that additional contextual speech determines the exact meaning of deictic utterances.

Many prime examples of deictic words are pronouns. There are many pronouns that, without greater context, do not designate a specific person or figure. That makes these pronouns dependent on context or deictic. For example, when a speaker says "you" or "me," others outside of the frame of reference will not know who those pronouns refer to. If, on the other hand, a speaker says "John Smith" or "Patrick Robinson," it is immediately clear to which persons they are referring. Pronouns including "you" and "me" are thus deictic.

Deixis generally involves evaluating a point of reference. Specific kinds of deixis work differently. One example is a deictic “person phrase,” where the reader or observer considers the deictic word or phrase in relation to the speaker and the person who’s being spoken to. Different kinds of deictic person phrases include first person and second person words or phrases.

Another main kind of deictic category is place deixis. Some simple words reference place in a vague or generic way. Again, without context, these words are somewhat semantically useless. Examples of deictic place phrases in English include “this,” “that,” “here” or “there.”

Linguists can also look at examples of what’s called time deixis. Deictic time phrases are vague or unqualified references to a time. Examples in English include “now” and “then.”

In addition to these kinds of deictic phrases, there are other kinds of similar semantical issues where simple concrete words refer to vague abstract feelings or other intangibles. The use of words like “this” or “that” to refer to emotional outcomes or other intangibles are prime examples of this linguistic phenomenon. These wide ranging forms of deixis serve to illustrate the many ways that language speakers derive meaning from a sophisticated semantical context for words or phrases.

Besides all of the ways that words can be dependent on other words and phrases, alternative forms of expression can also be deictic, like body language and sign language. Linguists may also look at these more abstract forms of deictic phrasing to understand how comprehension of ideas involves more than just auditory input. All of this is part of high level linguistics that seeks to understand how humans communicate.

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