Deixis (gr. δεῖξις «display») – «point of reference or function of lexical unit expressed by lexical or grammatical means» (LED). Lexical units and expressions which performs a reference function are called deictic units. The sphere of deixis includes:

  • reference to a participant of the speech event (personal deixis) – to a speaker and an addressee, expressed by different types of pronouns (first person «I, me, my, mine» and second person «you, your, yours»)
  • reference to the subject of discourse (third person pronouns)
  • reference to the spatial location of the object expressed by the demonstratives or particles (this – that, here – there)
  • reference to the temporal and spatial position of a referent (time deixis) expressed by the pronominal adverbs «here» and «now». Some authors divide this kind of deixis into the deixis of place and time. In some languages the spatial deixis can be related to the geographical objects. Thus, the demonstrative pronouns in the Yupik languages reflect the opposition “upstream / downstream / through the river”; in West Greenland – “north / south”, and in the languages of Australia, New Guinea and the Himalayas the common opposition is «uphill / downhill».
  • reference to the social characteristics of the participants in a speech event (social deixis). This reference is carried out, for example, through addressing people in the languages of South-East Asia (Japanese verb affix “-mas” serves to show a special respect for the addressee); through taboo in Aboriginal languages of America and Australia; through various registers in European languages (in the English language, depending on the formality of situation, they use «eat» or «dine», «home» or «residence»). Moreover, in the Tamil language deixis is expressed by different morphological markers depending on the degree of formality of communication.

   Lexical units and grammatical categories can serve the deictic function. Thus, deictic value of prepositions and demonstrative pronouns is their lexical meaning. From the grammatical categories, deictic characteristics are inherent, for example, for the verbal categories of time, taxis and person, the so-called category of politeness (indication of the social status of the participants of the speech act, for example, in the Japanese language).

   The paradigmatic deixis is related to the content structure of the sentence and is focused on extralinguistic features. In addition, deixis can be oriented towards the internal organization of the text, i. e. providing the semantic coherence of discourse; this kind of deixis is called anaphora. The intermediate variety of deixis is observed in some grammatical categories, where the reference sphere is limited by the system of language and corresponds with the formal structure of the sentence. Thus, gender, according to J. Kurilovich, is a deictic category of nouns (indicates its belonging to a certain class of agreement) and anaphoric adjectives (indicates the gender of a noun with which it agrees to provide a syntax coherence of constituents). Deixis is a universal feature of language, but the types and modes of expressing deixis in different languages vary. However, such deictic categories as person are universal for all languages (though are expressed extremely diversely) and that speaks of their fundamental role.

Further reading

Levinson S. Deixis in The Handbook of Pragmatics edited by L.R. Horn and G. Ward. – Blackwell Publishing, 2000. – Лингвистический энциклопедический словарь под ред. В.Н. Ярцевой // Советская энциклопедия. М., 1990.

Anna Brattseva (Ph.D. student)

Translated by Dasha Barikova