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Deixis refers to the words (and phrases) in a language that allow a speaker or writer to locate their utterances in time and space and human society. These words are typically changeable in their reference. For example, the meaning of the word 'you' changes depending on who is using it, and to whom they are talking. 'Here' and 'today' work in a similar way, depending on context to give them meaning. Deictic expressions allow a text producer to create a picture of a particular world, and to identify the ways in which time, space and people relate within that world.

Deictic expressions are understood in reference to a 'deictic centre'. This central point refers to the time and space in which the speaker or writer exists, and their social positioning. In order to make sense of the world around us, our default assumption is that we occupy this deictic centre: for example, if I had to describe what I am currently doing, I would say that 'I' am writing 'this' summary of deixis, right 'now' in 'this' office. As you read it, you are existing in a different 'now' and identifying a different person as 'I' as well as 'here' meaning the place you are, and not this office. However, we are also capable of 'deicitic projection', which allows us to 'see' things from another person's point of view: so, when reading Great Expectations, a reader positions themselves in nineteenth-century London, aligning themselves with Pip and seeing the world from his point of view.

More pertinently, text producers (consciously or unconsciously) take advantage of hearers'/readers' ability to deictically project for ideological purposes. Often, a text producer will attempt to present a picture of what they consider the 'actual world', even though they are aware that some hearers or readers may not share their conception of reality. Even when we disagree strongly with views expressed by text producers, our ability to deictically project means that we can easily get caught up in the versions of reality that they present. For example, even those vehemently opposed to the UK government's programme of cuts to public services may be affected by politicians' repeated exhortations that 'We must cut this deficit now' (deictic terms highlighted), and begin (perhaps subconsciously) to feel that there is indeed a pressing need to take action to reduce the deficit.

Example

One way of using deixis that can be particularly powerful is the use of the plural pronoun 'we'. As we have seen, hearers and readers are quite able to identify with someone else using 'I', and so are likely to be brought even more firmly on side when the text producer aligns themselves with the hearer/reader in this way – it evokes the feeling of writer and reader/speaker and hearer being somehow united. Political parties are particularly adept at using this technique, as it can suggest not only the alignment of the text producer with the hearer/reader, but also the existence of a 'them' (in this context, usually other political parties) in opposition to the 'we'. This sort of usage is demonstrated in the following example from the Conservatives' 2010 manifesto:


"Some politicians say: 'give us your vote and we will sort out all your problems'.

We say: real change comes not from government alone."


Of additional interest here is the reported speech: while the Conservatives include readers in 'we', they suggest that other political parties use 'we' in a more exclusive and elitist way, viewing the electorate more distantly as 'you'.

 

Spotting deixis

When listening to or reading speeches or soundbites given by politicians, look out for their use of deictic expressions. In particular, think about how their use of deictic expressions can create a sense of closeness or distance. For example, are 'we' and 'us' used to suggest a sense of unity between speaker/writer and listener/reader? Are terms such as 'us' and 'them' or 'here' and 'there' used to create a sense of opposition?

 

Recommended reading

The 'How does Context Affect Meaning?' chapter in Chapman's book on theories of English provides a helpful introduction to how deictic expressions work:

Chapman, Siobhan. 2006. Thinking about Language: Theories of English. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 115-126.

Fowler provides a brief summary of how deictic expressions indicate person, time and place:

Fowler, Roger. 1991. Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press. London: Routledge, 63-64.

See 'Representing Time, Space and Society' in the following text for a guide to how deixis works and how it can be of ideological significance:

Jeffries, Lesley. 2010. Critical Stylistics: The Power of English. Hampshire: Palgrave, 146-158.

 

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