Deixis - An introduction

Welcome to Deixis in Early Modern English!

In the following you will get to know one of the most important domains of pragmatics: deixis. The term deixis derives from Greek and means “pointing or indicating” (Levinson 1983, 54). “Any linguistic form used to accomplish this 'pointing'; is called a deictic expression” (Yule 1996, 9). In a nutshell, deixis is concerned with “[…] the relationship between the structure of languages and the contexts in which they are used” (Levinson 1983, 55).

On the basis of excerpts from Shakespeare´s plays you are now going to learn the different forms of deixis and its particularities in Early Modern English.

But before we start, check here on the right pronunciation of deixis if you are not sure.

As an illustration let us consider the following sentence from one of Shakespeare´s comedies Pericles, Prince of Tyre :

“What is that?”

Evidently somebody is “pointing via language” (Yule 1996, 129) to an object which is possibly even accompanied by a gesture. That is herewith a deictic expression or an indexical (Yule 1996, 9). The reason why you still fail to understand this utterance is that you do not know the circumstances in which the sentence was uttered. Deictic expressions have namely the feature of “contextual boundness” (Weissenborn and Klein 1982, 2). That is why they are mostly used in face-to-face interactions where the participants of the conversation share the same discursive context. Whenever we make an utterance, we do that in a “spatio-temporal frame” (Fitzmaurice 2002, 35) and refer to objects in our environment. It means that we are only able to understand such utterances if we know who is speaking to whom, when and where (Weissenborn and Klein 1982, 1-3).

In other words: we have to reconstruct our conversational partner´s point of view and vice versa (Grundy 2000, 46). In face-to-face interactions people can use gestures, mimic and touches to make themselves clear (Bublitz 2001, 203-204). Deixis accomplishes this function on the linguistic level and shows itself in „demonstratives, […] person pronouns, tense, […] time and place adverbs […] tied to circumstances of utterance” (Levinson 1983, 54).

To say it differently, “deixis grammaticalizes aspects of the physical world” like persons, time and space and “social identities and relationships of participants in the social world” (Fitzmaurice 2002, 43), which we will see later on.

Let us now return to our initial example and consider it in its context. Check therefore on the synopsis of Act III of Pericles, Prince of Tyre and on Scene 2 of Act III .

[…] [Enter two or three Servants with a chest]

First Servant. So; lift there.
Cerimon: What is that?
First Servant. Sir, even now
Did the sea toss upon our shore this chest:
'Tis of some wreck.”

Now we can conclude that it is the magician Cerimon who asks his servants about the strange chest the servants brought in. The action is set in Cerimon´s house the morning after the great storm at sea. Knowing these circumstances we can even guess what is in the chest: the presumed dead Thaisa.

But in this short scene that is not the only deictic expression. As already mentioned there are different forms of deixis which can point to objects, time, place and even to social rank or a sequence of discourse. You will get them all to know if you continue to read. The exercises in each chapter shall help you to consolidate your skills in this topic.

Have fun!