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Person deixis, place deixis and time deixis in English

In linguistics, deixis (/ˈdksɪs/)[1] refers to words and phrases, such as "me" or "here", that cannot be fully understood without additional contextual information—in this case, the identity of the speaker ("me") and the speaker's location ("here"). Words are deictic if their semantic meaning is fixed but their denotational meaning varies depending on time and/or place. Words or phrases that require contextual information to convey any meaning—for example, English pronouns—are deictic. Deixis is closely related to anaphora, as will be further explained below. Although this article deals primarily with deixis in spoken language, the concept is sometimes applied to written language, gestures, and communication media as well. In linguistic anthropology, deixis is treated as a particular subclass of the more general semiotic phenomenon of indexicality, a sign "pointing to" some aspect of its context of occurrence.

Although this article draws examples primarily from English, deixis is believed to be a feature (to some degree) of all natural languages.[2] The term's origin is Ancient Greek: δεῖξις, translit. deixis, lit. 'display, demonstration, or reference', the meaning point of reference in contemporary linguistics having been taken over from Chrysippus.[3][clarification needed]


Traditional categories[edit]

Possibly the most common categories of contextual information referred to by deixis are those of person, place, and time—what Fillmore calls the "major grammaticalized types" of deixis.[4]


Person deixis concerns itself with the grammatical persons involved in an utterance, (1) those directly involved (e.g. the speaker, the addressee), (2) those not directly involved (e.g. overhearers—those who hear the utterance but who are not being directly addressed), and (3) those mentioned in the utterance.[5] In English, the distinctions are generally indicated by pronouns. The following examples show how. (The person deictic terms are in italics, a signaling notation that will continue through this article.)

I am going to the movies.
Would you like to have dinner?
They tried to hurt me, but she came to the rescue.

In languages (like English) with gendered pronouns, the third-person masculine pronoun has traditionally been used as a default when using "it" is inappropriate but the gender of its antecedent is unknown or inapplicable.

For example:

To each his own.

In English, it is often now common to use the third-person plural, even when the antecedent is singular:

To each their own.

In languages that distinguish between masculine and feminine plural pronouns, such as French or Serbo-Croatian,[6] the masculine is again often used as default. "Ils vont à la bibliothèque", "Oni idu u biblioteku" (They go to the library) may refer either to a group of masculine nouns or a group of both masculine and feminine nouns. "Elles vont...", "One idu..." would be used only for a group of feminine nouns. In many such languages, the gender (as a grammatical category) of a noun is only tangentially related to the gender of the thing the noun represents. For example, in French, the generic personne, meaning a person (of either sex) is always a feminine noun, and so if the subject of discourse is "les personnes" (the people), the use of "elles" is obligatory, even if the people being considered are all men.


Place deixis, also known as space deixis, concerns itself with the spatial locations relevant to an utterance. Similarly to person deixis, the locations may be either those of the speaker and addressee or those of persons or objects being referred to. The most salient English examples are the adverbs "here" and "there" and the demonstratives "this" and "that"—although those are far from being the only deictic words.[4]

Some examples:

I enjoy living in this city.
Here is where we will place the statue.
She was sitting over there.

Unless otherwise specified, place deictic terms are generally understood to be relative to the location of the speaker, as in

The shop is across the street.

where "across the street" is understood to mean "across the street from where I am right now."[4] Although "here" and "there" are often used to refer to locations near to and far from the speaker, respectively, "there" can also refer to the location of the addressee, if they are not in the same location as the speaker. So, although

Here is a good spot; it is too sunny over there.

exemplifies the former usage,

How is the weather there?

is an example of the latter.[5]

  • Deictic projection: In some contexts, spatial deixis is used metaphorically rather than physically, i.e. the speaker is not speaking as the deictic centre. For example:
I am coming home now.

The above utterance would generally be considered as the speaker's expression of his/her going home, yet it appears to be perfectly normal for one to project his physical presence to his home rather than away from home. Here is another common example:

I am not here, please leave a message.

Despite its common usage to address people who call with no one answering the phone, the here here is semantically contradictory to one's absence. Nevertheless, this is considered normal for most people as speakers have to project themselves as answering the phone when in fact they are not physically.

Languages usually show at least a two-way referential distinction in their deictic system: proximal, i.e. near or closer to the speaker; and distal, i.e. far from the speaker and/or closer to the addressee. English exemplifies this with such pairs as this and that, here and there, etc.

In other languages, the distinction is three-way or higher: proximal, i.e. near the speaker; medial, i.e. near the addressee; and distal, i.e. far from both. This is the case in a few Romance languages[note 1] and in Serbo-Croatian,[7] Korean, Japanese, Thai, Filipino and Turkish. The archaic English forms yon and yonder (still preserved in some regional dialects) once represented a distal category that has now been subsumed by the formerly medial "there".[8] In the Sinhala language, there is a four-way deixis system for both person and place; near the speaker /me_ː/, near the addressee /o_ː/, close to a third person, visible /arə_ː/ and far from all, not visible /e_ː/. The Malagasy language has seven degrees of distance combined with two degrees of visibility, while Inuit languages have even more complex systems.[9]


Time, or temporal, deixis concerns itself with the various times involved in and referred to in an utterance. This includes time adverbs like "now", "then", "soon", and so forth, and also different tenses. A good example is the word tomorrow, which denotes the consecutive next day after every day. The "tomorrow" of a day last year was a different day from the "tomorrow" of a day next week. Time adverbs can be relative to the time when an utterance is made (what Fillmore calls the "encoding time", or ET) or when the utterance is heard (Fillmore's "decoding time", or DT).[4] Although these are frequently the same time, they can differ, as in the case of prerecorded broadcasts or correspondence. For example, if one were to write

It is raining now, but I hope when you read this it will be sunny.

the ET and DT would be different, with the former deictic term concerning ET and the latter the DT.

Tenses are generally separated into absolute (deictic) and relative tenses. So, for example, simple English past tense is absolute, such as in

He went.

whereas the pluperfect is relative to some other deictically specified time, as in

He had gone.

Other categories[edit]

Though the traditional categories of deixis are perhaps the most obvious, there are other types of deixis that are similarly pervasive in language use. These categories of deixis were first discussed by Fillmore and Lyons.[5]


Discourse deixis, also referred to as text deixis, refers to the use of expressions within an utterance to refer to parts of the discourse that contains the utterance — including the utterance itself. For example, in

This is a great story.

"this" refers to an upcoming portion of the discourse, and in

That was an amazing account.

"that" refers to a prior portion of the discourse.

Distinction must be made between discourse deixis and anaphora, which is when an expression makes reference to the same referent as a prior term, as in

Matthew is an incredible athlete; he came in first in the race.

Lyons points out that it is possible for an expression to be both deictic and anaphoric at the same time. In his example

I was born in London and I have lived here/there all my life.

"here" or "there" function anaphorically in their reference to London, and deictically in that the choice between "here" or "there" indicates whether the speaker is or is not currently in London.[2]

The rule of thumb to distinguish the two phenomena is as follows: when an expression refers to another linguistic expression or a piece of discourse, it is discourse deictic. When that expression refers to the same item as a prior linguistic expression, it is anaphoric.[5]

Switch reference is a type of discourse deixis, and a grammatical feature found in some languages, which indicates whether the argument of one clause is the same as the argument of the previous clause. In some languages, this is done through same subject markers and different subject markers. In the translated example "John punched Tom, and left-[same subject marker]," it is John who left, and in "John punched Tom, and left-[different subject marker]," it is Tom who left.[citation needed]


Social deixis concerns the social information that is encoded within various expressions, such as relative social status and familiarity. Two major forms of it are the so-called T–V distinctions and honorifics.

T–V distinction[edit]

T–V distinctions, named for the Latin "tu" and "vos" (singular and plural versions of "you") is the name given to the phenomenon when a language has two different second-person pronouns. The varying usage of these pronouns indicates something about formality, familiarity, and/or solidarity between the interactants. So, for example, the T form might be used when speaking to a friend or social equal, whereas the V form would be used speaking to a stranger or social superior. This phenomenon is common in European languages.[10]


Honorifics are a much more complex form of social deixis than T–V distinctions, though they encode similar types of social information. They can involve words being marked with various morphemes as well as nearly entirely different lexicons being used based on the social status of the interactants. This type of social deixis is found in a variety of languages, but is especially common in South and East Asia.[10] Persian also makes wide use of honorifics.[11]

Anaphoric reference[edit]

Generally speaking, anaphora refers to the way in which a word or phrase relates to other text:

  • An exophoric reference refers to language outside of the text in which the reference is found.
    • A homophoric reference is a generic phrase that obtains a specific meaning through knowledge of its context. For example, the meaning of the phrase "the Queen" may be determined by the country in which it is spoken. Because there are many Queens throughout the world, the location of the speaker[note 2] provides the extra information that allows an individual Queen to be identified.
  • An endophoric reference refers to something inside of the text in which the reference is found.
    • An anaphoric reference, when opposed to cataphora, refers to something within a text that has been previously identified. For example, in "Susan dropped the plate. It shattered loudly" the word "it" refers to the phrase "the plate".
    • A cataphoric reference refers to something within a text that has not yet been identified. For example, in "Since he was very cold, David promptly put on his coat" the identity of the "he" is unknown until the individual is also referred to as "David".

Deictic center[edit]

A deictic center, sometimes referred to as an origo, is a set of theoretical points that a deictic expression is 'anchored' to, such that the evaluation of the meaning of the expression leads one to the relevant point. As deictic expressions are frequently egocentric, the center often consists of the speaker at the time and place of the utterance, and additionally, the place in the discourse and relevant social factors. However, deictic expressions can also be used in such a way that the deictic center is transferred to other participants in the exchange, or to persons / places / etc. being described in a narrative.[5] So, for example, in the sentence

I am standing here now.

the deictic center is simply the person at the time and place of speaking. But say two people are talking on the phone long-distance, from London to New York. The Londoner can say

We are going to New York next week.

in which case the deictic center is in London, or they can equally validly say

We are coming to New York next week.

in which case the deictic center is in New York.[2] Similarly, when telling a story about someone, the deictic center is likely to switch to them. So then in the sentence

He then ran twenty feet to the left.

it is understood that the center is with the person being spoken of, and thus, "to the left" refers not to the speaker's left, but to the object of the story's left, that is, the person referred to as 'he' at the time immediately before he ran twenty feet.


It is helpful to distinguish between two usages of deixis, gestural and symbolic, as well as non-deictic usages of frequently deictic words. Gestural deixis refers, broadly, to deictic expressions whose understanding requires some sort of audio-visual information. A simple example is when an object is pointed at and referred to as "this" or "that". However, the category can include other types of information than pointing, such as direction of gaze, tone of voice, and so on. Symbolic usage, by contrast, requires generally only basic spatio-temporal knowledge of the utterance.[5] So, for example

I broke this finger.

requires being able to see which finger is being held up, whereas

I love this city.

requires only knowledge of the current location. In a similar vein,

I went to this city one time ...

is a non-deictic usage of "this", which does not reference anything specific. Rather, it is used as an indefinite article, much the way "a" could be used in its place.

Deixis and indexicality[edit]

The terms deixis and indexicality are frequently used almost interchangeably, and both deal with essentially the same idea: contextually dependent references. However, the two terms have different histories and traditions. In the past, deixis was associated specifically with spatiotemporal reference whereas indexicality was used more broadly.[12] More importantly, each is associated with a different field of study; deixis is associated with linguistics, whereas indexicality is associated with philosophy[13] as well as pragmatics.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In Classical Latin, the medial and distal forms are usually used as pejorative and laudative respectively.
  2. ^ Or his nationality, or the language or country he's talking about, etc.: e.g. in the set phrase the Queen's English = "standard" British English, "the language variety the Queen of the United Kingdom speaks", or at least is supposed to speak, regardless of where the speaker is located. Similarly, in the mouth of a Briton, or in a text about the UK, the Queen would by default be assumed to mean the Queen of the United Kingdom.


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary 3rd Ed. (2003)
  2. ^ a b c Lyons, John (1977) "Deixis, space and time" in Semantics, Vol. 2, pp. 636–724. Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ S. E. M VIII.96; see The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, 2003, p. 89.
  4. ^ a b c d Fillmore, Charles J (1971) Lectures on Deixis. CSLI Publications (reprinted 1997).
  5. ^ a b c d e f Levinson, Stephen C. "Deixis" in Pragmatics. pp. 54–96.
  6. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2006) [1st pub. 1997]. Serbo-Croatian. Languages of the World/Materials ; 148. Munich & Newcastle: Lincom Europa. p. 22. ISBN 3-89586-161-8. OCLC 37959860. OL 2863538W. [Grammar book]. Contents. Summary.
  7. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2003). "Ändert sich das serbokroatische System der Lokaladverbien?" [Are there changes in the Serbo-Croatian system of local adverbs?] (PDF). In Berger, Tilman; Gutschmidt, Karl. Funktionale Beschreibung slavischer Sprachen: Beiträge zum XIII. Internationalen Slavistenkongress in Ljubljana. Slavolinguistica ; vol. 4 (in German). Munich: Otto Sagner. p. 115. ISBN 3-87690-844-2. OCLC 53376683. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
  8. ^ Lyons, Christopher. Definiteness. Cambridge University Press, 1999. p. 111.
  9. ^ J. Peter Denny, "Semantics of the Inuktitut (Eskimo) Spatial Deictics" [1]
  10. ^ a b Foley, William. 1997. Anthropological linguistics: An introduction. Blackwell Publishing.
  11. ^ Salmani Nodoushan, M. A. (2006). Greetings forms in English and Persian: A sociopragmatic perspective. International Journal of Language, Culture, and Society, 17. online.
  12. ^ Silverstein, Michael. (1976) "Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description". In K. Basso and H. Selby (eds.), Meaning in Anthropology. SAR pp. 25.
  13. ^ Levinson, Stephen C. (2006) "Deixis". In Laurence R. Horn, Gregory L. Ward (eds.) The Handbook of Pragmatics, pp. 978–120. Blackwell Publishing.
  14. ^ Salmani Nodoushan, M. A. (2018). Which view of indirect reports do Persian data corroborate? International Review of Pragmatics, 10(1), 76-100.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Stephen R.; & Keenan, Edward L. (1985). Deixis. In T. Shopen (Ed.), Language typology and syntactic description: Grammatical categories and the lexicon (Vol. 3, pp. 259–308). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fillmore, Charles J. (1966). Deictic categories in the semantics of 'come'. Foundations of Language, 2, 219–227.
  • Fillmore, Charles J. (1982). Towards a descriptive framework for spatial deixis. In R. J. Jarvell & W. Klein (Eds.), Speech, place and action: Studies in deixis and related topics (pp. 31–59). London: Wiley.
  • Gaynesford, M. de I: The Meaning of the First Person Term, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • George Grigore, La deixis spatial dans l'arabe parlé à Bagdad, Estudios de dialectologia arabe n.7, Zaragoza, pp 77-90 [2]
  • Kordić, Snježana (2001). Wörter im Grenzbereich von Lexikon und Grammatik im Serbokroatischen [Serbo-Croatian Words on the Border Between Lexicon and Grammar]. Studies in Slavic Linguistics ; 18 (in German). Munich: Lincom Europa. p. 280. ISBN 3-89586-954-6. LCCN 2005530313. OCLC 47905097. OL 2863539W. Summary.
  • Traut, Gregory P. and Kazzazi, Kerstin. 1996. Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. Routledge. London and New York.

External links[edit]