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Title. Double click me.

The phrase 'click me' above these words, is deictic. 'Title. Double click me.' is part of this wix website's design instructions: it's what comes up, in a text-box, if I try to add a title to this page. Those words are instructing me to double click the space to edit the text. I left them, as it's a neat example of deixis being everywhere, in all kinds of unexpected places! Take this paragraph, for example. All of the photos on the homepage of this site involve deixis, and all of the words in blue here are deictic! Or, I should say, they are functioning deictically here...  



Um... deixis? deictic? functioning deictically?


Ok, so deixis is the term for a small number of words which 'point' to what they are referring to ('deixis' actually comes from the Ancient Greek work for pointing /showing/demonstrating, closely related to 'indexicality). Most words connote some stable characteristics of the object they refer to. 'Table', for example, suggests a flat surface standing on top of legs, while 'sun' refers to the giant ball of flaming gas around which we orbit. Deictic words, though, instead suggest things about the relationship between the person saying the deictic word and the thing they are referring to.


Deictic words are words like 'I', 'you', 'her', 'this',' here', 'now' 'yesterday', 'go away', and so on. The thing being referred to by these words changes every time the word is used. When I use 'I', for example, I'm referring to Andrea Macrae. When you use the same word, you're referring to yourself, someone entirely different from my 'I' (as is everyone else reading this page). Likewise, the time that constitutes 'now' for you as you read this is different to the 'now' I can refer to with the same word as I write - for me, 'now' is 22:52 on 12/5/2015. In fact, each of those three 'now's were true of a time a few seconds apart from each other, for me as I typed them and for you as you read them. My 'here' is Oxford, UK. Wherever is 'here' for you as you read this is very probably somewhere else.


So, you see, the referents of deictics words are not stable. Aspects of the referential value - the meaning - can be stable: 'I' usually refers to a sentient being, usually the speaker of the 'I', 'here' refers to a place, usually the place of the speaker as they say 'here', and 'now' refers to a moment in time - the moment of the act of saying 'now'. All of these words, 'here', 'now' and 'I', refer to the immediate context of the speaker and the act of speaking. Other deictic words tend to refer to the relationship between the speaker in the act of speaking and other people, times and places.


For example, 'you' are other to 'me'; 'this' tends to be used to refer to something close to the speaker while 'that' tends to be used to refer to something further away; 'nearby' refers to a place close to the speaker, while 'far away' suggests the opposite (Oxford might be 'far away' from your perspective). Every times 'far away from here' is used, it suggests a place that is of great distance from the speaker, but the place that is referred to changes. Similarly, 'yesterday' always refers to a point in the past, preceding the moment of speaking by something within the time span of 1 minute to 47 hours and 59 minutes - so there are some characteristics of the referential value which are stable - but 'yesterday' means something different every day I say it. If I say it tomorrow, it will refer to today (yes - 'tomorrow' and 'today' are both deictic too)!


Deixis is all about perspective - about communicating the perspective of the speaker, about communicating relationships (of intimacy, togetherness, group identities, deference, alienation. otherness...), about clarifying the position of ourselves and others in relation to each other and in space and time.


Some words are inherently deictic, and others function deictically depending on how they are used, and which other words they are teamed up with. Here are some words which are either inherently deictic, or which are usually functioning deictically when they are used (so prototypically deictic):


PERSON DEIXIS*: I, you, she, he, they, them, we, us, this, that


SPATIAL DEIXIS: here, there, nearby, far away, to my right, ahead


TEMPORAL DEIXIS: now, then, soon, later, next week, last year, an hour ago 


(*Look out for how deictic personal pronouns are used in advertising and political speeches to create a sense of direct address, or belonging, or 'us' vs. 'them'.)


Some theorists argue that there are a few more categories of deixis, but these three are the basic categories that most agree on.



So when are these words not functioning deictically?


Crucially, words like these must relate to the perspective of the speaker (what's known as the 'origo' - also from Ancient Greek) to be functioning deictically. Here is a diagram which should help:

 N     E

 W    S

SPATIALLY DEICTIC:                                     

The tent is to the left of the car.

The house is beyond the tree.

The bicycle is to the right of the tree.



The tent is next to the house.

(This is the case from any perspective - see *'The car is in front of the house'.)

The tree is south of the house.

(this relates two objects to each other via cardinal direction.)

The bicycle is below the tree.

(This is the case irrespective of your viewing position.)






Hang on - how do you pronounce it?


Ah, well, the jury's kind of still out on that one. Some scholars pronounce it 'dykes-iss', others 'dixis', others 'deexis' and yet others 'day-ixis'. No-one has gotten into too much of a purist Ancient Greeky huff about it thus far...



Wait, I'm not done yet!


If you're interested and want to find out more, go to google scholar or and search for stuff on deixis by Karl Buhler (the original key thinker on deixis), Emile Benveniste, Charles Fillmore, Keith Green, Elena Semino, Peter Stockwell, Dan McIntyre, David Herman, or me - Andrea Macrae.

*The car is in front of the house - This is both deictically the case (as the objects are positioned in relation to each other this way from your perspective) but also true irrespective of deixis, as most buildings have 'front' faces - the one with the main door in - irrespective of perspective, at which the car is located. The car would be described as 'in front of the house' from someone at the side of the house, or someone at the back of the house who couldn't even see the car. 

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