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Deixis and Pragmatics

Summary and Keywords

Deictic expressions, like English ‘this, that, here, and there’ occur in all known human languages. They are typically used to individuate objects in the immediate context in which they are uttered, by pointing at them so as to direct attention to them. The object, or demonstratum is singled out as a focus, and a successful act of deictic reference is one that results in the Speaker (Spr) and Addressee (Adr) attending to the same referential object. Thus,


A:Oh, there’sthat guy again (pointing)B:Oh yeah, now I see him (fixing gaze on the guy)


A:I’ll have that one over there (pointing to a dessert on a tray)B:This? (touching pastry with tongs)A:yeah, that looks greatB:Here ya’ go (handing pastry to customer)

In an exchange like (1), A’s utterance spotlights the individual guy, directing B’s attention to him, and B’s response (both verbal and ocular) displays that he has recognized him. In (2) A’s utterance individuates one pastry among several, B’s response makes sure he’s attending to the right one, A reconfirms and B completes by presenting the pastry to him. If we compare the two examples, it is clear that the underscored deictics can pick out or present individuals without describing them. In a similar way, “I, you, he/she, we, now, (back) then,” and their analogues are all used to pick out individuals (persons, objects, or time frames), apparently without describing them. As a corollary of this semantic paucity, individual deictics vary extremely widely in the kinds of object they may properly denote: ‘here’ can denote anything from the tip of your nose to planet Earth, and ‘this’ can denote anything from a pastry to an upcoming day (this Tuesday). Under the same circumstance, ‘this’ and ‘that’ can refer appropriately to the same object, depending upon who is speaking, as in (2). How can forms that are so abstract and variable over contexts be so specific and rigid in a given context? On what parameters do deictics and deictic systems in human languages vary, and how do they relate to grammar and semantics more generally?

Keywords: indexicality, demonstratives, pronouns, anaphora, deictic typology, interaction, pragmatics, space, perception, common ground

1. Deixis and the Grammar

There is a large literature on deixis in several fields. Some linguists and philosophers have called such expressions “indexicals” (Benveniste, 1974; Eco et al., 1988; Husserl, 1978; Morris, 1946; Peirce, 1955 cf. Searle, 1969). Others call the same class of expressions “shifters” (Jakobson, 1971[1957]; Jespersen, 1965[1924]; Silverstein 1976), and in this essay we will call them all “deictics” (Fillmore, 1997; Hanks, 1983, 1990). Each of these descriptive terms points analysis in a different direction.

‘Indexicals’ are defined in terms of individuation of a demonstratum, without description, as suggested above (Bar Hillel, 1954; cf. Kaplan, 1989; Nunberg, 1993; Searle, 1969, p. 80). This approach is less prominent in the descriptive linguistic literature, where close analysis of individual ‘deictic’ or ‘demonstrative’ systems, or cross-language comparison of systems, reveals many conventionalized features. For the empirically committed linguist, actual deictic forms and arrays always combine sheer indexical functions with symbolic information, of several sorts.

Deictics (including demonstratives and pronouns) are distinguished by grammatical category as in N or ADV (of space, time, manner), and this marking provides crucial information about how the demonstratum is integrated into the phrase, clause, or sentence in which it occurs. Is it a place, path, actor, an object, a way of doing something, or a time frame? In languages that mark case, gender, number, concord, and so forth, grammatical category information leads to a whole array of other morphosyntactic marking, most of which adds more specific information about the referent. This is all the more true in deictics that are arrayed in closed class paradigms, which implies that they share certain features but are distinguished by others.

A first step in analyzing deixis in any language is therefore to note the existence of contrasting expressions of the same category, as in English the, this, that, these, those, (this here, that there) and their Hausa analogs, as shown in Table 1:

Table 1. Hausa deictics.


Prox to Spr (immediate field)


Distal to Spr/ Prox to Adr


Prox to Spr

(non-immediate field)


Distal to Spr

(Hill, 1982; Jaggar and Buba, 1994)

In some languages, like French, such series are transparently composed of combinations of a small set of morphemes, as in ici, là, voi-ci, voi-là, ce-ci, ce-la, ces, ceux-ci, ceux-là, celle-ci, celle-là, etc. Yucatec Maya is another clear illustration:

Table 2. Yucatec deictics (partial).


Locative Adverb











This kind of proportionality or analogical formation of lexemes in sets is so strong that some scholars have proposed to define deictics by paraphrasing them in terms of one another, as in “this is the one here now,” “here is the place of I now,” “there is the place of you or he” (Fillmore, 1997; Frei, 1944; Kurylowicz, 1972; Lyons, 1982; compare Russell, 1940; Reichenbach, 1947). Suggestive evidence for such a claim might be the fact that in many languages, forms in one category are transparently derived from those in another, as in Quechua (kay ‘this’ > kay-pi ‘here,’ chay ‘that [medial]’ > chay-pi ‘there,’ haqay ‘that [dist]’ > haqay-pi ‘there [dist]’ (Calvo Perez, 1999; Lasater, n.d.). Similarly, Mandarin demonstratives are monomorphemic, whereas spatial adverbs are derived by suffixation: zhè ‘this, high accessibility’ > zhèr, zhèli ‘here,’ ‘that, low accessibility’ > nàr, nàli ‘there’ (Tang, 1999). Temporal deictics may be derived from spatial ones, as in Yucatec tol-akhéak-o’ ‘back then [remote past]’ < tol-o’ ‘out there [remote]’, or from non-deictic lexemes (cf. ‘today,’ ‘yesterday,’ aujourd’hui, Maya behé’ela’e’ ‘today (lit. ‘’)).

In highly compositional languages such as Nungubuyu (Heath, 1980), Santali (Zide, 1972) and Malagasy (Anderson & Keenan, 1985), deictic words may be composed of five or more morphemes. Heath (1980) reports that in Nungubuyu, four basic roots distinguish Proximal, Accessible (to Adr), Distal and Anaphoric in both demonstrative and adverbial categories, with the adverbs derived from the nominals by suffixation. These are subdivided into + ≠ ∅ Concrete (precise vs. vague reference), + ≠ ∅ Kinetic (trajectory vs. location), + ≠ − Centric (where +Centric is subdivided into Centripetal ≠ Centrifugal, and −Centric is used for transverse relative to the Spr’s field of vision). The nominal forms are further subdivided by + ≠ ∅ Absolute (which Heath glosses as ‘definiteness’), gender (masc, fem), number (sg, dual, pl) for human referents, and an additional five noun classes for non-humans. Among the most elaborate systems reported in the literature is Inuktitut (Denny, 1982, pp. 371–372). In this language, there are twelve deictic roots, distinguishing ‘Out of field’ ≠ ‘In-field’ and within In-field, Away (non-prox) ≠ At (prox). In-field Away is then split into three values: Bounded (Exterior ≠ Interior) ≠ Vertical (Inferior ≠ Superior) ≠ Horizontal. The In-field categories are further divided by a binary opposition between Restricted (equidimensional, punctual) ≠ Extended (elongate, mobile, regional). Further modifications (by inflection or derivation) yield over six hundred and eighty-five deictic words.

In general, the more compositional a deictic paradigm, the more transparent are the functional distinctions between forms, and the greater the likelihood that given morphemes or distinctions recur across categories, resulting in a high degree of proportionality.

Cross-cutting these contrasts is one between deictics that can be lexically expanded, as in “this, this man, this man who you saw.” In this series, simple this is “pronominal” and the other two phrases are adnominal uses of the demonstrative. In the adnominal cases, the lexical expansion provides descriptive information about the demonstratum, in a sense filling in the semantics to complement the leaner indexical. In many of the world’s languages, these two functions correspond to distinctive demonstrative or adverbial forms, as in Mulau, a Daic language, and Japanese (Diessel, 1999, p. 59). In twenty-four of the eighty-five languages Diessel (1999, p. 58) sampled, pronominal and adnominal usages are marked by different categories. In Turkish and Lezgian, the same deictic roots are used in both functions, but the pronominal forms inflect for case, whereas the adnominal ones do not.

All of these grammatical facts are relevant to the claims that referential deixis forms a subsystem within the grammars of human languages and that when inflected, derived, or lexically expanded, deictics convey a great deal of information, much of which is directly relevant to identifying the demonstratum. Bare roots are predictably less rich in information than stems, phrases, or constructions.

Deictics in many languages may be combined into constructions in which distinct, coreferential, or mutually reinforcing forms co-occur. This is illustrated by (non-standard) English ‘this here book,’ and (standard) Yucatec leti’ ela’ [ this] = ‘this very one’ and leti’ e hé’ela’ < ‘the one the’ = ‘this here one.’ In the spatial series in Maya, there is a distinction between two proximal forms, the one Punctate (té’ela’ ‘right here/there’) and the other Regional waye’ ‘here’ [region including me now]. For simple locative deixis, the two forms are opposed, but there is a commonly used construction in which they are combined: té’e waya’ < ‘right.there here’ = ‘right there’ [point within region of ‘here’]. In one class of constructions, including the ones just cited, two or more deictics corefer to the same object, but each deictic contributes its own distinctive information.

In other cases, one and the same deictic root or word is duplicated for added emphasis. Consider the following examples, from Maya, in which the directive deictic hé’el=o’ ‘there it is’ (look!) occurs in four different shapes, in which both parts of the construction may be duplicated. In the bottom five phrases, the standard negative marker is added. No deictic derived from the root hé’e may be semantically negated; to do so would be equivalent to saying “There it isn’t” (look!). Instead, by adding the negative to the directive, the result is a more emphatic directive. Notice in the examples, that the longer and heavier the construction, the more pragmatic effects arise. Whether one derives these effects from inferences or some other mechanism, there is clear iconicity in the relation between the increasingly elaborate marking of the form and the increasingly elaborate effect. Parentheses enclose rough, purely heuristic glosses of the conveyed pragmatic effect.


Deixis and Pragmatics

It is standard in the literature to distinguish between endophoric and exophoric deixis. In exophoric usage, the deictic (token) denotes an object in the extralinguistic context, as in “here, have a sip” (extending beverage to addressee). By contrast, in endophoric usage, the deictic refers to an object of discourse (often nowhere materially present on scene). Anaphoric usage of a deictic is an example of this, as in “So you went to Boston, did you like it there?” Notice in this case that there is interpreted as coreferential with Boston, and if one switches the city to Chicago, the reference of the deictic shifts with it. The distinction between endo- and exophoric uses can be difficult to draw, and there are arguably blended cases, yet there are clear cases where different deictic categories have different valences. In Maya spatial deictics there are five (bimorphemic) stems, of which waye’ ‘here’ [region which includes me now] is invariantly exophoric, and tí’i ‘there’ [where we said] is invariantly endophoric. The interest of this distinction, beyond the fact that languages encode it, is that endophoric usage engages the memory more centrally, whereas exophoric engages the senses. The referent is cognitively accessible, but not perceptually accessible. Moreover, the cognitive access in question must be shared by the parties. It is “common ground,” whereas not all exophoric deixis picks out objects already given to both participants.

The linguistic expression of deixis extends far beyond these initial distinctions. Taken together however, they make up what can be called the grammatical skeleton of deixis in any language: grammatical category features, paradigmatic oppositions among roots and stems, inflection, derivation, proportionality across categories, pro-X vs. ad-X structures, the broad issue of constructions in which multiple coreferential forms combine and the interaction between endophoric and exophoric. Viewed in this context, natural language deixis is obviously not the same as philosophically defined indexicality: deixis blends indexicality with a hefty dose of other information about the referent, the search domain and the grammatical role it plays in the sentence.

2. Functional Structure of Deixis

Most of the linguistic literature on deixis follows Buhler (1934) in distinguishing three parts in the elementary speech event: the Speaker, the Addressee, and the Object talked about. In Figure 1, the Spr–Adr relation consists of the reciprocal orientation of the two parties and the contact established between them, such as reciprocal gaze in face-to-face interaction. This relation may be marked by a high degree of common ground and mutual knowledge, or by relevant asymmetries (of perceptual field, social status, knowledge of the matter at hand, rights and responsibilities, and so forth). The regular alternation of I, you, we, and (s)he in dialogue is a handy indicator of the reciprocal Spr–Adr relation.

Deixis and Pragmatics

Figure 1. Primary relations in the deictic field.

The Spr-Obj relation is established by the act of deictic reference itself, in which the Obj is individuated by the Spr’s deictic act. The Spr may already have an established relation to the Obj; she may own it, have it in her hand, be close to it, or be looking at it. In traditional egocentric approaches to deixis, this Spr-to-Obj accessibility relation is the defining one. Yet in a successful, fully consummated deictic exchange, the Adr must also establish a relation to the Obj. At the completion of the utterance, if not before, the parties must attend to the same Obj, achieving what Clark, Schreuder, and Buttrick (1983) have called joint attention focus. For this reason, deictic usage is highly sensitive to the access that both parties have to the Obj. Asymmetries in any of the Spr–Adr, Spr–Obj or Adr–Obj relations can affect a Spr’s choice of deictics.

There is widespread agreement in studies of natural language deixis that indexicality designates the context dependency between utterances and speech contexts, and that deictics are a special kind of indexical, used to make reference to single objects or groups of objects in relation to the context of utterance. We can schematize this as in Figure 2, where the ‘Indexical ground’ is the contextual zero-point, or pivot relative to which the deictic points to the focal object.

Deixis and Pragmatics

Figure 2. Relational structure of referential deixis.

One of the best known features of deictics is that they shift in reported speech, so that “I like it here” (said in context 1) becomes “Bill said he liked it there” (said in Context 2). Note that Person, Tense and Locative deictics all shift in reported speech (hence the term “shifter” coined by Jesperson and adopted by Jakobson). Using Figure 1 as a guide, reported use is a transposition of the original indexical ground from an earlier Context 1 to the subsequent Context 2 in which it is reported. By contrast, when speech includes direct quotation, the same relational structure is in play, but in an inverse manner: the original linguistic forms are reproduced verbatim in the quotation, but their reference is displaced away from the quoting context. Therefore, if Ben quotes Sebastian saying “I’ll be here tomorrow,” then the ‘I’, ‘here’ and tomorrow’ denote Sebastian (not Ben), the time and place of Sebastian’s utterance (Context 1, not context 2 of Ben’s utterance). The alternation of participants in face-to-face interaction, as each party is Spr, then Adr, then Spr, etc., displays the same transposition of indexical ground. In dialogue and reported speech, the relational values of ‘I’, ‘you, ‘this,’ and ‘that’ do not vary systematically according to who is speaking; it is the indexical ground that alternates (Hanks, 1990).

This three-way distinction raises two key questions. First, what kinds of relational features are encoded in deictic types? The standard view holds that relative contiguity (this = proximal, that = non-proximal, and so forth) is fundamental, and other pragmatic effects are incidental to deixis or derived from contiguity by metaphorical extension (Anderson & Keenan, 1985) or contextual inference (Levinson, 1983). For careful assessment of these alternatives, argued with data from Lao, see Enfield (2003, 2009). More recent work argues that the basis of deixis is not spatial contiguity, but rather accessibility. What matters is not where the object is, but how the participants have or gain mutual access to it (Hanks, 1990, 2005; Himmelmann, 1996; Janssen, 1995, 2002; Leonard, 1985; Mondana, 2005). Spatial contiguity can support accessibility, but so can perception (via any of the senses), prior talk and memory, salience (cognitive or perceptual), evaluative stance, relative familiarity with the object, and in some cases ownership of the object by a participant.

The second major question bears on how one defines the indexical ground. As noted, a dominant tradition in the analysis of deixis assumes that the zero-point, or ground is Spr, as in “‘here’ is a place close to me.” (compare Evans, 1982, Chapter 6; Gale, 1964; cf. Russell’s description of “egocentric particulars,” 1940). Most traditional grammars and typologies make the same assumption (e.g., Anderson & Keenan, 1985), and Benveniste’s (1966, 1974) anchoring of indexical reference in subjectivity makes the same move (compare Lyons, 1982, p. 121). Presumably, the rationale is that, among the multiple factors in any context, the Spr has a special centrality. But when describing actual deictic practice, it is essential to take into account the other two relations as well: Spr–Adr and Adr–Obj (Hanks, 1990, 1992, 2005). Asymmetries between participants, common ground (Clark & Marshall, 1981; Clark, Schreuder, & Buttrick, 1983; Enfield, 2006), and audience design have a strong impact on the use and understanding of deictic tokens. The same interactive factors may be partially conventionalized in the semantics of deictic types, as displayed in Tables 3-6.

Table 3. Distinctive origos for deixis.

Deixis and Pragmatics

Table 4. Three origos in Cebuano2 (Wolff, 2009, p. 198).

dí a

‘is here near me (but not near you)’

ní a

‘is here (near you and me)’

ná a

‘is there (near you but not near me)’

tú a

‘is there (far from both of us)’

di dtu

‘there (far away)’

Table 5. Demonstratives in Quileute3 (Andrade, 1933, pp. 246, 252).

Demonstrative pronouns/Determiners

demonstrative advbs



near Spr

yü x :o

yü k:o

xo ‘a

near Adr

yi tca

yi tca

so ‘o

near s+a

sa ‘a


sa ‘a

away from s+a




Table 6. Demonstratives in Japanese (Kuno, 1973, p. 27).




near to the speaker




nearer to the hearer




far from both the speaker and the hearer








3. Spatial Access to the Deictic Object

Work done at the Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen has demonstrated significant complexity in the spatial domain of deixis, and a growing literature on deictic typology reinforces that impression that even spatial deixis is much more subtle than simple contiguity. Table 7 shows some of the attested distinctions, summarized by Diessel (1999).

Table 7. Spatial relations: Object to origo (cf. Diessel, 1999, p. 51).

Deixis and Pragmatics

In systems apparently based on relative proximity, the ‘middle’ term(s) are the first point of contention: Does an erstwhile ‘middle distance’ deictic shift its Origo (the reference point on which deictic relationships are based) from Spr to Adr (mid = close to Adr, or mid-range from Spr)? Does it introduce some other parameter (like perceptibility of the Obj)? Ignoring the addition of a preposition, think of English here, there, over there as three degrees of distance. Is simple ‘there’ more focally mid-range from Spr, or is it better analyzed as Prox to Adr (who might define the Origo for mid-range)?

In systems that include a distinction between static Obj and mobile Obj, a new set of distinctions becomes relevant: is “that one” approaching us, fleeing from us, or traversing our field (Centripedal, Centrifugal, Transverse)? Moreover, if the Obj is static, is it above us or below us? This is the Elevation parameter in Table 7. Finally, in an ecology with salient topographic features, does one or another feature characterize the referent especially well? Features of the natural environment, like rises in the land, or coastlines, are sometimes conventionalized in deictics, although this appears to be rare.

Tables 811 illustrate a few paradigms reported in the linguistic literature. A glance at the linguistic forms themselves will show that these are paradigmatic sets with parallel formation. Note the presence of three or more degrees of remove from Origo, the shift of the Origo from Spr to Adr (Tables 8, 11), and the combination of verticality, interiority, or visibility with the dimension of relative contiguity. The implication is that a universal vocabulary for describing deictic systems must distinguish these parameters, rather than assimilating them all to contiguity.

Table 8. Demonstrative adverbs in Lahu4 (Mastisoff, 1973, pp. 110–101).


chò ‘here’


ô ‘there’


‘over there’


‘up there’


‘down there’

Table 9. Ronga5 three basic terms, with 3rd elaborated.

tihomu leti

‘ce boeuf-ci’

tihomu letu

‘ce boeuf-là (là où tu es)’

tihomu letiya

‘ce boeuf là-bas, loin’

tihomu letiyã

‘ce boeuf très loin’

tihomu letiyaa

‘ce boeuf à l’horizon’

Table 10. Interiority: Spatial deictics in Yucatec Maya.

té’e(l-) a’

‘right here (immediate)’

té’e(l-) o’

‘there (non-immediate)’

to(l-) o’

‘out there (exclusive)’

way- e’

‘(in) here (inclusive)’

tí’- i’

‘there (anaphoric)’

Table 11. Verticality and visibility in Khasi6 (Nagaraja, 1985, pp. 11–12; Rabel, 1961, p. 67).

demonstrative pronouns

demonstrative adverbs (u ‘he’) (ka ‘she’)

pl (ki ‘they’)

(ša ‘to’)






medial (near h)

























The Interiority feature in Maya, Table 7 is meant to capture the fact that waye’ ‘(in) here’ always refers to a region inside of which the Spr finds herself. For instance, this room is a waye’ for me now; the building, the city, the part of the country are all potential waye’, whose regional scope varies. What never varies is that the Spr is within the region denoted at the moment of utterance. From this it follows that a Maya Spr cannot point to a body part and say “it hurts waye’” (since the Spr is not entirely within the body part). Similarly, “let’s go waye’” is ill-formed, since, wherever the Spr is, he is already waye’. The correct forms for demonstrating punctual or nearby places deploy té’ela’, ‘here/there,’ usually produced with co-speech pointing.

4. Perceptual Access to the Deictic Object

Perception is obviously critical to our apprehension of space, and directed gaze can embody the turning of cognitive attention, especially when a deictic Object happens to be accessible in the sensory field of interaction. The question is whether the role of perception and attention in deictic practice is part of the language or merely part of the human context in which language is used. Straightforward as it is, this distinction can be subtle in practice, because an object that is accessible to touch is thereby also proximal. One within view may be distal, it may be both audible and out of sight, or audible but also known, or again it may be accessible to smell (like a forest fire) yet of uncertain location, and so forth. How does one decide which of the simultaneous relations is the one foregrounded by the deictic utterance? This kind of multiplicity poses major challenges for the pragmatics of deixis, and it requires a combination of linguistic analysis and participant observation where one can note the lead-up and response as well as the target utterance in its actual deictic field. It also requires metalinguistic discussion with native speakers of utterances and everyday interactions, in order to gauge their standards and expectations (Hanks, 2009).

At the level of linguistic categories and features, there are many reports in the literature of deictic systems with dedicated perceptual forms, as illustrated in the next set of paradigms. By far the most common perceptual modality for deixis is vision, although touch and hearing play a role. In all cases of which I am aware, it is the perceptual access of the Spr or the access shared by Spr + Adr that is marked, not the Adr’s access. Thus, whereas spatial contiguity may be computed relative to Adr, as in the “medial” forms above, perceptual access does not appear to shift Origo in this way (Diessel, 1999, pp. 41–42). One does not use a Visible deictic to denote an Object the Adr can see but the Spr cannot.

Table 12. Perceptual access to referents: Visibility.

Deixis and Pragmatics

In languages like Quileute, Kwakwa’la, and Crow, both Visible and Invisible are marked, whereas in Santali, West Greenlandic, and Ute. It is Invisible that receives a dedicated form. It appears that no language has a special form marking Visible unless it also has one for Invisible. This suggests that visual access is the normal state of affairs, and the use of simple proximal or distal forms in a language with an overt Invisible, pragmatically implies that the object is within sight. Table 13 displays what Diessel (1999, p. 42) takes to be the most common alignment.

Table 13. Visibility in Ute7 (Givon, 1980, p. 55).








sg. animate




pl. animate




The series of deictics we have called “presentative” in Maya illustrate a provocative blend of directivity and perception-based evidentiality. The forms are shown in Table 14. Note first that this series is distinct from the spatial deictics and that all four forms are derived from the same root hé’e(l-). When combined with -a’ Immed, o’ non-Immed or -be’ Peripheral sensory, the resulting stems are not merely referring expressions (it is here), but have the full force of directives (here it is, take it!; there it is look!; there it is, listen! or smell it!). Hence I have labeled them Ostensive Evidentials (OSTEVs). By contrast, when the same root is combined with the empty placeholder suffix -e’, the result is not even a referring expression, but rather a modal marking Spr certainty without perceptual evidence.

Table 14. Ostensive evidential deictics in Yucatec (Hanks, 1990, 2007).

base – TD


gloss (approximate)


ostensive evidential

‘here it is (tactual)’


ostensive evidential

‘there it is (visual)’

hé’e- be’

ostensive evidential

‘there it is (audible)’



‘surely (certain)’

The R values conveyed by the OSTEVs are explicitly evidential in that they are centered on qualitatively different kinds of perceptual access to referents (Chafe & Nichols, 1986; Dendale & Tasmowski, 2001; Guentchéva, 2007; Hanks, 2012). The category embodies a scale of evidence, from tactual through peripheral sensory, and at the lowest end, certainty without current evidence. It is tempting, in light of typology, to analyze hé’ebe’ as marking simply that the Object is not within sight of the Spr, hence Invisible as in the languages in Table 15. Unfortunately, this will not suffice because the form marks both Invisible and Perceptible. A couple of examples from my fieldwork will illustrate ordinary usage of these forms. Margot is an adult bilingual mother of four, whose first language was Maya. Pilar and Elena are co-resident sisters-in-law, and both are monolingual Maya speakers. Margot was in the yard with a hose, watering plants, when I come out of house with filthy hands raised needing to wash them. She held out the hose for me to rinse my hands, saying:


Deixis and Pragmatics

Pilar was in front of her kitchen. and Elena was across the yard doing laundry. At the time, Chiki, Elena’s child, was on the far side of Elena’s house, invisible to Pilar but in clear sight of Elena. Her utterance invites Pilar to come and see for herself.


Deixis and Pragmatics

It was evening, and I was sitting with Elena in her kitchen, by the cooking fire. We heard Pilar patting masa ‘corn paste’ into tortillas in the next-door kitchen, across the courtyard and out of sight. In the example, Elena remarks that Pilar is making tortillas and just then we hear another slap of her hand.


Deixis and Pragmatics

5. Cognitive Access to the Deictic Object

Deictics in any language are also used under circumstances in which neither spatial location nor sensory access is available to help the Adr zero in on the referent. This is the case, for instance, when a deictic is used endophorically, to corefer with some antecedent expression in the prior discourse. In many languages, including English, the erstwhile distal forms ‘that’ or there’ may be used for anaphoric coreference with a prior NP or locational. In some languages, dedicated forms are specialized in anaphoric deixis. As pointed out earlier, all varieties of endophoric deixis rely on memory, background knowledge or anticipation, rather than spatial location or perceptual access. We will term this dimension “cognitive access.” Anaphora is distinctive in that the reference is controlled by sequence: the antecedent is earlier in the discourse and must be retrieved, and there are subtle interactions between the form of an anaphoric expression, the sequential structure of the interaction, and how far back in discourse one needs to look for its antecedent (Hanks, 1990). This may motivate the fact that the same forms used for anaphora are often used to designate the path one has traversed (I came that way, from there) as opposed to the prospective forward path (I’m heading this way, over here). Table 15 displays the varieties of cognitive access to the deictic referent.

Table 15. Cognitive access to object.


Nunggubuyu, Yucatec Maya, English, etc.

Reference to discourse

Yucatec Maya, English


Yucatec Maya, English, etc.

Focality, salience

Hausa, Yucatec Maya


Yucatec Maya


Ewondo, Nunggubuyu, Crow, Yucatec Maya

Closely related to anaphora is the use of deixis in direct reference to a prior utterance. Here there is no coreference between the deictic and the antecedent, but a simple direct reference to the antecedent itself.


Deixis and Pragmatics


Deixis and Pragmatics

Such reference to discourse is very common in response position, and in closing routines in talk in interaction (so there you have it, that’s that, that’s what I wanted to tell you). In Maya, the Visible OSTEV hé’elo’ ‘there it is (look!) is routinely used to bring an episode or interaction to a close, or mark that a conclusion has been reached. By contrast, lelo’ b’èey ‘that’s how it is,’ leti’ ‘the one’ and letielo’ ‘that’s the one’ are all used in response position to assent with a prior statement without bringing the episode to a close.

A third variety of cognitive access is what some linguists call pragmatically controlled anaphora. The term is unfortunate because pragmatically controlled reference is not necessarily governed by discourse sequence, as is anaphora proper. Instead, in what Schegloff has dubbed “Recognitional” usage, the Spr assumes that the Adr will be able to identify the referent without further description or gestures. What underlies the Adr’s access is background knowledge, hence memory, but not short-term memory of an antecedent in discourse. Consider two illustrations attested in Maya.

Father arrives home from travel and notices that one of his four children is not around, and so he asks his spouse:


Deixis and Pragmatics

The conveyed meaning of this utterance was to ask where the child in question was, that is, neither spatial nor perceptual access was available to either himself or his spouse. Rather, he knew that she would recognize which of the four children he was asking about. Similarly, it is routine in Maya to refer to one’s spouse as leti’ ‘the one,’ without any recent antecedent, because although this form fails to mark gender or any other distinguishing feature of the referent, one’s spouse is, as it were, cognitively accessible at all times.

In (10), I have just asked Margot to make me a couple of hammocks that I will purchase and give as gifts. She asks me whether I want them to turn out like the ones I had already bought from her in the past.


Deixis and Pragmatics

Anaphora, reference to discourse and recognitional deixis are varieties of cognitive access that rely on memory and common ground and allow speakers to refer to Objects nowhere accessible in the spatial or perceptual fields of interaction. Other uses rely more on relative salience, attention focus or the imagination. These are the “forward looking” counterparts of the varieties of endophora that depend upon prior experience. For instance, in (11), (l)e máak a’ ‘this guy’ refers to an individual unknown to the Adr and nowhere on scene. The use of the Immediate demonstrative lela’ ‘this’ indexes high focus, prospective deixis to an individual who is not present, but who will be close at hand once the Spr gets his hands on him.


Deixis and Pragmatics

The parameter labeled Resolution indicates the relative precision or lack of precision in the deictic reference, as in the English constructions “it’s over there (somewhere)” (vague, regional) vs. “it’s right there” (precise, punctual). Once again, there are languages in which this distinction is categorized in the deictic types, independent of relative distance, yielding arrays of opposed forms. Tables 16 and 17 show two such languages.

Table 16. Ewondo:8 Resolution in Demonstrative Adverbs (Redden, 1980, p. 145).

set 1 (precise)

set 2 (vague)

near s

near h



away from s+h



far away from s+h



Table 17. Crow: Resolution at ±3 degrees of remove (Graczyk, 1986).




‘right here’




‘right there’


‘not exactly there’


‘around there’


‘over there’


‘right over there’


‘over there’


‘way over there’


‘in that area’

The role of Cognitive Access in deictic practice is broader than these examples suggest. Arguably, all deictic reference, whether spatial, perceptual, retrospective, or prospective, depends upon the cognitive process of orienting the interactants’ attention on the object. Part of this is the parameter Resolution, which narrows or broadens the scope of attention focus (cf. floodlight vs. laser pointer). But in ordinary interaction, one can make proper deictic reference to an object that is nowhere physically present in utterance space or the perceptual field. Instead, it may be cognitively present only in mental space. It is erroneous to rule out such uses as metaphorical extensions from spatial contiguity, as in traditional accounts, because languages may intersect space with cognitive access. This is evidence that the parameters are independent. Yet there are also regular patterns whereby forms that ordinarily rely on spatial or perceptual accessibility are deployed for sheerly cognitive access. These can be summarized in the simple tendency that medial or distal deictics are used for retrospection (anaphora, memory), while Immediate or proximal forms are used for prospection (cataphora, anticipation).

In Yucatec Maya, each of the grammatical categories of deixis has one (and only one) form that is dedicated to cognitive access simplicter. In the spatial series, the form is tí’i’ ‘there (endophoric),’ which is used to refer to a place just mentioned (hence anaphoric) or known from background knowledge (hence recognitional). Tí’i’ indicates nothing about the location of the referent, other than that it is known. In the nominal series, leti’ ‘the one’ picks a known individual or object irrespective of spatial or perceptual accessibility, e.g., one’s spouse. It is opposed to lela’ ‘this’ and lelo’ ‘that,’ both of which prototypically convey spatio-perceptually relevant information. In the OSTEV series, the assurative modal hé’ele’ indexes an epistemic stance of certainty, itself based on prior experience or some other cognitive warrant. It has none of the directivity, singularity of reference, or perceptual values of the other OSTEVs. (12) is a reassuring prediction, and (13) an experience-based generalization. (14) illustrates one speaker’s gloss of the import of the form.


Deixis and Pragmatics


Deixis and Pragmatics


Deixis and Pragmatics

In the manner adverbial series, bey ‘thus, like so’ lacks the concreteness of beya’ ‘like this’ (showing) and beyo’ ‘like that’ (reference to discourse or to a state of affairs known by both parties). Rather, as a one-word utterance, it expresses what an English speaker might express by “Yeah,” “got it,” or “Right.” As a common “backchannel device,” simple “bey” conveys that the Adr is paying attention and understanding, not necessarily agreeing with the Spr.

6. Interactive Shifts in Deictic Practice

The different kinds of access outlined above are integral to deictic practice, in which cognitive, spatial, and perceptual access to objects of reference undergird interactants’ ability to accomplish joint attention. They all contribute to the coordination of the interactants and their ability to pick out the same objects, that is, to agree on what they are talking about. Even when an object is available for the senses, it is the focusing of attention on that object that the deictic utterance accomplishes, whether it is already attended to or newly projected as a focus. This is especially evident in interactional sequences in which the parties have asymmetric access to the Object, and the Adr must figure out what or where the Spr is pointing to. The final example is an exchange I participated in and recorded, in Maya. In the example, Florencio (nickname Lol) and Fidelia, husband and wife, are talking with me about relations between nuclear families in the multi-family homesteads in which Maya people often live. Residence is patrilocal and the sons and their wives coreside in the larger home of the sons’ father. Sisters-in-law are ranked in authority according to the birth order and prestige of their husbands. Each nuclear family pays for its own food, and each wife cooks at her own hearth. On the day in question, Margot, the senior wife and mother of four, had gone to the city, and I wondered who had prepared the dinner and where it was cooked. Lol explained that his wife Fidelia had prepared it, at her own hearth. Note that he refers to her with simple leti’ ‘the one,” as expected, and that he refers laconically to her hearth as té’elo’ ‘there.’ The locative deictic functions spatially to denote the place where she cooked, but Florencio simultaneously assumes that I will recognize where he means without further clues. He presumes both spatial and cognitive access. I was initially confused because the two women’s hearths were side-by side and Fidelia’s was the closer one to us, although we could not see it from where we were seated, inside her house. Why had Lol construed her hearth as té’elo’ (non-Immediate) rather than té’ela’ (Immediate) in light of the actual contiguity relations?


Deixis and Pragmatics

My query displays my lack of recognition, and in response, Lol reformulates the spatial deictic, upgrading the non-Immed recognitional té’elo’ to the Immed, punctual directive construction té’ way beya’, which can be roughly glossed ‘right there (inside our) here like this (gesturing)’. This simple exchange demonstrates the co-operation of spatial and recognitional deixis, and the fluency with which Lol shifts the frame of reference from recognitional to a much more precise spatial relation amplified by a visible gesture. It is the asymmetry in our respective knowledge—the lack of common ground—that his utterance rectifies. In the phrasicon of Maya deixis, the two formulations are opposed and they imply different relations between Origo and Object. If the meaning components of deictics were only spatial, it is difficult to see how one and the same referent could be simultaneously ‘there’ and ‘right here’ for the same speaker under the same circumstances. But space is only part of the story, and in interaction, the Origo is dynamic, not static. Lol’s reformulation of the hearth is coreferential with his earlier deictic, but it construes it in terms of a different relation to us.

The challenge for a pragmatics of deixis is that in interaction, Sprs routinely shift between deictic construals of Objects from one utterance to the next, expanding and contracting the deictic field, transposing the Origo, or activating different modalities of access. This results in conversational sequences in which deictics that are normally opposed to one another are used to demonstrate one and the same Object, but under a different perspective. The study of these processes yields powerful evidence of the relations between semantics and pragmatics, and the functional requisites of deictic practice.

Further Reading

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Clark, H. H., Schreuder, R., & Buttrick, S. (1983). Common ground and the understanding of demonstrative reference. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22(2), 245–258.Find this resource:

Diessel, H. (1999). Demonstratives: Form, function and grammaticalization. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Enfield, N. J. (2003). Demonstratives in space and interaction: Data from Lao speakers and implications for semantic analysis. Language, 79(1), 82–117.Find this resource:

Fillmore, C. (1997). Lectures on Deixis. CSLI publications.Find this resource:

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Hanks, W. F. (1990). Referential practice: Language and lived space among the Maya. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Hanks, W. F. (1996). Language form and communicative practices. In J. Gumperz & S. Levinson (Eds.), Rethinking linguistic relativity (pp. 232–270). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Hanks, W. F. (2005). Explorations in the deictic field. Current Anthropology, 46(2), 191–220.Find this resource:

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Himmelmann, N. P. (1996). Demonstratives in narrative discourse: A taxonomy of universal uses. In B. Fox (Ed.), Studies in anaphora (pp. 205–254). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

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(2.) An Austronesian language spoken in the Philippines.

(3.) A Chimakuan language spoken in the Northwestern U.S. (Diessel, 1999, p. 41, Table 22).

(4.) A Sino-Tibetan language spoken in Southwestern China (cited in Diessel, 1999, p. 43, Table 26).

(5.) A Bantu (Niger-Congo) language spoken in Mozambique.

(6.) An Austro-Asiatic language spoken in India (Diessel, 1999, p. 42, Table 25).

(7.) A Uto-Aztecan language spoken in the Southwestern U.S. (Diessel, 1999, p. 42, Table 23).

(8.) A Niger-Congo language spoken in Cameroon (Diessel, 1999, p. 20, Table 9).