Person Deixis

The first and second person pronouns I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, you, your, yours are always deictic because their reference is entirely dependent on context. Bear in mind that e.g. in a conversation each person shifts from being 'I' to being 'you' constantly.

In many languages the form of person deixis we use in order to address someone depends on the addressee's relative social status. We are speaking of social deixis in this context. The social contrast encoded within person deixis is used to distinguish between familiar respectively non-familiar addressees. Deriving from the French forms tu (familiar) and vous (non-familiar), this phenomenon is called T/V distinction. The two-part distinction is also found in languages like German (du/Sie) or Spanish (/Usted), whereas there are other languages, e.g. Thai, that offer eleven ways of saying you depending on the status of the person being addressed.
Coming back to the T/V distinction, the choice of one form communicates something about the speaker's relationship with the addressee, thus if speakers have a higher social status, are older or more powerful, they will tend to use the T-form to a lower, younger and less powerful addressee, who will tend to use the V-form in return.

Third person pronouns are only deictic when they are free, if they are bound, their reference is known from linguistic context. In deictic terms, third person differs from first and second person with regard to basic interactions. While the first and second person pronouns (I-you) are direct participants in a basic interaction, this is not the case for third person pronouns, since they refer to outsiders and thus suggest distance. Consequently, if a third person form is used in cases where a second person form would be possible, distance is communicated. In English this is sometimes done for ironic or humorous purposes. The following sentence

Would his highness like some coffee?

could be uttered by a person, who is very busy cleaning the kitchen, to an addressee who is very lazy. The distance communicated through third person can also be used to make accusations like in

Somebody didn’t clean up after himself.

Categories: Glossary