The Variation Of Deixis And Deictic Systems In Various Languages

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Question :


Write an essay on a topic "Presumably deixis is present in all languages, but deictic systems differ from language to language. To what extent is it possible for deictic systems to differ, i.e. what are the limits (if any) to variation in deixis (in normal language) cross-linguistically? If you wish, you can focus on one type of deixis, e.g. spatial deixis. Your essay should be based on empirical facts of different languages".

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Answer :


Pragmatics, which is a sub field of linguistics accurately, studies how people comprehend the speech or act of communication in situation that demands a concrete speech. It is important to distinguish two meanings or intents in each of the utterance or communicating act associated with verbal communication. Deixis belongs to the arena of pragmatics as it is directly associated with the relationship between the linguistical structure and the context of use. The ‘verbal pointing’ that indicates the connotation by means of language is known as the deictic expressions, deictic words or the deictic markers as far as the linguistic forms are concerned (Heine, Kaltenböck & Kuteva, 2013). Deictic expressions fall into categories and it differs or varies from language to language. The understanding or the meaning of certain words and expressions changes from one discourse to another. Therefore, it is an eminent fact that the denotation demands variation language to language as well. In this essay the variation of Deixis and deictic system have been analyzed and discussed in the context of different languages. The essay attempts to shed light upon the cross linguistic variation of deixies with a special reference to spatial deixies in different languages.

Deixis and its place in pragmatism and semantics 

The specific function of some words such as demonstrative pronouns or definite articles that demotes different meanings with the change in the discourses is widely known to be deixies. Deictic that etymologically of Greek origin means “able to show’ and in linguistics and pragmatics it refers to a process whereby specific expressions and words rely utterly on the context of the usage. Modern linguistic studies considers Deixies as an important field in which deictic words are defined as the words that requires background information to convey a specific sense (Vaysi & Salehnejad, 2016). It is important to note that deixies is also concerned with the ways in which languages encode in accordance with the context of utterance and therefore, it is also concerns the ways of interpretation of the utteranceles depending on the background of the utterance. Evidently, different languages have its own specific structure and contextual words (Dubrow, 2015). Therefore, the context of utterances varies from one language to another. As the language can not considered to be a mere conjecture of words, each and every word does not have the ability to serve as deixis at a same time. Without the pragmatic approach languages lose its possibility and scope to evolve or to transform and adapt contemporary form.

Deixis in pragmatics and semantics

Deixis is one of the major constituents of pragmatics. Philosophical pragmatism stresses upon the truth and falsity of the sentences with reference to a word with its deictic function as an indexical. The indexical also has a wider paradigm of choosing and interpreting words in association with its deictic function. Deixis facilitates the process in which the semantics is used  to analyze the contextual paradigm of utterance in a better manner and it needs to be done with suggestion to the speaker, the time and place of speaking, current location of the specific discourse and the gestures of the speaker. Dexis reflects the relationship between the language and its context in an obvious way (Scott, 2013). In this domain of pragmatism the relationship between the structures of languages are discussed with reference to its context. As per the opinions of the experts, different languages have its own specific structure and therefore, the contextual use of the words varies from one language to another. In each language, words are considerd to be deictic if their semantic meaning is permanent but their denotation changes vary with time and place. For example, it can be said that English pronouns are deictic and it is correlated to both indexicality and anaphora. On the other hand, the study of deictic words is strictly linguistic even though indexicality is philosophically referred to as lexemes. 

Indexicalities often implicate several ways of transmitting a message that depends on the use of different signs. In context of conservation, it can be stated that the interpretation of the indexical expressions often partly depends on the gestures and shared experiences of the participants which are the paralinguistic or non linguistic features. Some experts believe that deictic expressions , pronouns along with the adverbs related to time and place are the specific clear illustrations of general facts about the located language.

According to Huddleson (2006) the basic distinction depends to the speaker’s context which lies in being proximal that indicates near the speaker and distal that indicates away from the speaker. Proximal deictic expressions include here, now and this where as Distal deictic expressions include there, than and that. The speaker’s location or the deictic centre decides the interpretation of the proximal expressions. For example now is taken to mean some point or period in time that matches the time of the speaker's utterance of the word (Huddleson, 2006). Deictic words can be considered as concerning to the words or the uniqueness of a word, the reference of which is reliant on the circumstances of its use. Another meaning of the word deictic is directly showing or pointing out. For instance, the terms ‘this’, ‘that’ and ‘then’ have a deictic function. Considering English language it can be stated that the meaning of certain sentences are depended on the context and certain circumstances (Huddleson, 2006). Such sentences can only be completely understood in accordance to a clear knowledge of the speaker, time of expression and the context of expression. In order to facilitate the understanding the following sentence can be considered.

Bring the book this evening because he will be here by then.

Without the knowledge of the context the sentence apparently seems to be vague and does not clearly indicate any meaning. Some of the expressions which have been used in the sentence rely on the context of the sentence to a great extent for interpretation of the sentence.

Types of deixis

As Buhler (2011) stated there are three primary categories of deixis. The three primary classification of deixis can be put forth as following:

  • Person deixis

It is used in order to point or indicate towards objects for example it, this, that, these or those books along with that is also used in order to indicate or point people for example him, her, then or these students.

It deals majorly with the detection of the grammatical persons which are used in order to submit the receiver as well as the speaker (De Busser, 2017). It consists of personal pronoun and vocatives. Personal pronouns indicate person, number and gender whereas vocative indicates addressees and calls or summonses.

As far as the personal pronoun in concerned every language has first person pronoun and second person pronoun  according to De Busser(2017). But in many languages the usage of third person pronoun is evidently seen. Although theses pronouns are not considered as deictic because they are indirectly involved in the utterance.

The number system varies largely from one language to another. There is a clear distinction of singular and plural in most of the common language systems. Sometimes a distinction is also found between the singular, plural and singular-dual-plural. The first person plurals refer to more than one entity but it does not clearly state if the speaker has included the addressee or not. For example in the English language system whether the pronoun “we” includes the receiver or not does not have parity.

The aspect of gender differs from language to language. If we consider English, the gender distinction is only found in the third person singular that is “he” or “she”. In Bengali language system this distinction is missing and in some other languages gender can be realized in first and second person pronoun as well.

Example: “she began to now comprehend that he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her” (Austen).

Vocatives are the noun phrases that are used in order to address someone. It is important to understand that they are not to be considered as the argument of the predicate.

  • Spatial deixis

Spatial deixis is the one that is used in order to point a place or a particular location. It is found that in each of the languages, the orator usually sets up a frame of suggestion around himself and it clearly distinguishes between the space around him and time which is relative to his utterance.

  • Temporal deixis 

It is used in order to indicate a time such as now, next week, last month, previous year or then. In consideration with the English language, it can be stated that adverbs of time and tense markers on the verb are used as temporal deixis. In English there are two tenses which are metaphorically used to mark verbs and they are present tense and past tense. In order to refer future events modal verbs are used in English such as will or shall is used along with the phrasal modal verb which is ‘going to’.

Example: Jack is goingto play football tomorrow.

                Shall I come in?

The modal verb ‘shall’ is primarily used in the application of British English whereas in American English prefers ‘will’. Because of such diversity in the usage of the modal verbs grammarians argues that the semantic use of tense can be distinguished as past and non past tense. 

It is evident that in order to interpret the meaning of the deixis it is important for the interpreter to know about the person, time and place the speaker is trying to convey. Based on some other aspects deixies can be classified into discourse deixies and social deixis.

Spatial deixis 

Spatial deixis refers to a special place and it is done with the help of the words such as here, there, behind, up, blow, under, back that side, this side and many more. As mentioned earlier the spatial deixis includes both Demonstrative and locative adverbs (Dubrow, 2015).

The demonstrative pronouns have the most deictic characteristics especially this or that and these and those. Adverbs like here and there also belong to this category along with some prepositional expressions. Some distal or proximal interpretations are also implied through spatial deixis. For example here or this is often used in order to indicate or locate something that is near to the speaker (Matsumoto, Akita & Takahashi, 2017).

Example: I said I have to leave you here.

                I have a nice place here.

Spatial deixis varies from one language to another to a great extent. Especially the difference is stark among the languages that are of different roots and origins. The languages that have Scandinavian origin have different treatment of spatial deixis than the languages that are originated from other roots. The eastern dialects also have different usage of the spatial deixis to the western dialects. Considering English, Arabic and Persian the difference of the spatial deixis in theses languages can be illustrated. In order to understand the differences it is important to understand the concept of demonstrative in different languages that are to be taken under consideration. Different languages have different spatial systems and to be more specific it can be stated that the difference lies in the application of the adverbs and the prepositions. Especially while the interpreter is trying to understand the meaning of the conveyed message it is important to decode the message in accordance to the context and this is similar in every language. Because of the difference in system of space and time facilitates this difference. Another important fact that is to be taken under consideration is that the use of tense differs from one language to another and thus it has an effect on the semantic features of the language as well. As far vas the spatial deixis is concerned most of the languages have either two or three distinctions for example in English there are two distinctions and in Spanish there are three distinctions and Japanese also has three distinctions as well. 

Example: in English there are only two distinctions which are ‘here’ and ‘there’ in Spanish the three distinctions are aqui or aca, ahi and alla or alli.

It is important to note that in Spanish three grades of proximity are present and it correlate precisely with three grammatical persons like:

1st : esta cosa aqui which is same as cersa de mi

2nd : esa cosa ahi that is same as cersa de ti

And 3rd : aquella cosa alli that is cerca de el.

If we compare the spatial system of Arabic and English the difference is tremendous. The spatial system of English is a two term system and it distinguishes mainly between two points in the distance scale that are proximal and distal and on the contrary 

Spatial deixis in different languages

Different languages have different deixis as far as the spatial system of the language is considered. It is evident that every language in some way or the other allows the ‘pointong out’ feature to be incorporated into the grammar system of the language. Not all languages have the same distinctions as far as the deixis is concerned. 

Spoken dialogues of English

In English dialogue the space is divided in terms of binary opposition but Latin has a more complex spatial distinction as it is consisted of a tripartate system which is similar to some of the ancient English dialects and it is retained in certain Northern dialects (Dubrow, 2015). The Kwatikul language has the similar distinction as English distinctions this or that but it doubles the numbers through distinguishing between the binary of “in sight” and ‘out of sight”.

English and Swedish differs in their encoding of the deictic system in spite of having a similar deictioc system historically. However, in modern English the number of deictic distinctions has been reduced to some extent (Lander & Haegeman, 2016). Swedish along with the counterparts of here and there also has hit and dit. It is evident that Swedish along with its encoding of the deictic adverbial information not only indicates proximity but it also provides an idea about the direction, to be more specific “goal”.

The reason behind the recognition of such variants depends on the other functions in the language situation. 

In order to understand the difference of the deixis here Arabic and Persian language have been compared to English.

English and Arabic

If we compare the spatial system of Arabic and English the difference is tremendous. The spatial system of English is a two term system and it distinguishes mainly between two points in the distance scale that are proximal and distal and on the contrary the Arabic system of space has three distinctions and it has the ability to distinguish between three points in the scale of distance. The distance oriented system of Arabic has three points which are proximal, medial and distal from the centre of the speaker (Rabadi, 2016).

Semantic features of Demonstratives of the two languages 

The semantic features of the two languages can be classified as the deictic feature and the qualitative features. The deictic features are stressed upon in order to understand the deictic differences of these two languages.

Although both of the languages use demonstratives in order to identify a specific physical object, person or entity along with that demonstratives are also used in order to indicate a person in the surrounding or the mental state or condition like ideas or notions (Ursini, 2013). However the great difference in the deictic feature in the difference of dimensions of the tense of both the languages. In English this or here and that or there are the terms which are used in order to demote what is near or proximal to the referent and what is far or distal to the referent. But, unlike English more deictic and points and space are specified in Arabic because it has three spatial dimensions for instance hāðā / hunā, ðāka / hunāka, and ðālika / hunalika. Following examples can help in the better understanding of the aspect.

hāðā kitābī. [proximal]

ðāka l-kitabu kitabī [ medial]

uşalī fī ðālika l-masĵid [distal]

This is my book. [proximal]

 That is my book. [distal]

In English language there are no medial spatial expression is found as it only consists of two dimensional spatial systems.

For the plural forms of demonstratives Arabic has only one form that denotes both masculine and feminine gender. The plural form of demonstrative can not mark gender distinction and there is only one form of proximal for both masculine and feminine (Scott, 2013). Another important fact that requires to be noted that the plural form of proximal demonstrative is only referred in order to refer humans and it is not used for non humans.


ašĵāru xaĐrāhāðihi l- this-F the-trees-F green

 "Those trees are green"

English has this or that for singular and similarly these or those for plural but Arabic language inflects for singular, plural and dual along with that gender. In Arabic the classification of words is different and includes hāðā, ðāka, ðālika for singular masculine, and hāðihi, hātika, tilka for singular feminine (Rabadi, 2016). In Arabic language, there are eight forms of demonstratives that are used in order to refer to dual referents and the medial and distal forms are neutralized, as they are identical. As far as the plural forms are concerned, there is only one form, which is used in order to refer to both masculine and feminine for each point of the distance scale (Rabadi, 2016). Therefore, it is evident that in Arabic the plural form of demonstrative does not identify any gender distinction.

English and Persian

In order to compare English and Persian it is important to include the demonstrative systems of these two languages and along with that the locative adverbs as well. Demonstratives are used in order to identify any physical objet s in both of the languages but the languages exhibit a deictic difference. Similar to Arabic Persian has three-dimensional spatial system and unlike English it displays more deictic points (Naghizadeh & Nargese, 2015). 

Some verbs that are used in order to indicate motion like ‘come’ and ‘go’ are able to retain a deictic sense when they are used in order to mark movement toward the speaker.

1. Don't come into my bedroom.

 2. Don't go into my bedroom.

 The Persian counterparts for 'come' and 'go' are '?amædæn' and 'ræftæn' . 

be otaq xab-e mæn næ-ja/ to bedroom-Gen my. 

 be otaq xab-e mæn næ-ro

to bedroom-Gen my NEG-come

 Fred went to me. 

Fred came from me. Their equivalents in Persian with 'amædæn' and 'ræftæn' 

Another important thing that requires to be noted is that the adverbs like ‘here’ and ‘there’ depends on the proximity to the location of the conveyor or the speaker. If the speaker moves then the interpretation of the adverbs automatically changes. In Persian the transference is basically a metaphorical shift from a more concrete domain of physical space to a more abstract dimension of time. The spatial systems of the two languages are different to each other and therefore, the spatial deictic system varies largely (Naghizadeh & Nargese, 2015). Another important fact is that the spatial system of both languages distinguishes between two points in the distance scale and that are the proximal and the distal from the centre of the speaker.

From the examples, it is eminent that spatial deictic systems of two languages show differences more than the similarities. Though the English and Persian deictic systems are similar as far as the temporal deictic system is concerned because the primary tenses of these two languages are similar to some extent (Vaysi & Salehnejad, 2016). However, because of the difference in their spatial system the spatial deictic system of these two languages varies greatly from each other.


In the light of the above study, it can be stated that the use of deictic expressions indicates to the validity associated with the use of proximal and distal continuum and it is considered to be the primary criterion of the distinction. When the dexis is used by the speaker completely in order to draw the attention of the listeners toward something without any specific reference to any spatial connotation, the prototypical or proximal usage is the primary characteristic of the language. It is often also used by the speakers in order to distance themselves mentally from things through the discriminate use of the deictics. From the study it is evident that different languages have distinct characteristic features as far as the deixis and the dictic system is concerned and the structure of the language and the semantic use of the lexemes denotes the difference. Temporal and spatial deixis varies from language to language and more than the similarities the usage concentrates upon the differences. The concept of space and time are not utilized in similar manner by all the languages but the deictic system forms a fundamental axis in most of the languages and the spatial deictic system differs in a great extent from one language to another.