In linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

, deixis refers to the phenomenon wherein understanding the meaning of certain words and phrases in an utterance
In spoken language analysis an utterance is a complete unit of speech. It is generally but not always bounded by silence.It can be represented and delineated in written language in many ways. Note that in such areas of research utterances do not exist in written language, only their representations...

 requires contextual information
Context (language use)
Context is a notion used in the language sciences in two different ways, namely as* verbal context* social context- Verbal context :...

. 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 both indexicality
In linguistics and in philosophy of language, an indexical behavior or utterance points to some state of affairs. For example, I refers to whoever is speaking; now refers to the time at which that word is uttered; and here refers to the place of utterance...

 and anaphora
Anaphora (linguistics)
In linguistics, anaphora is an instance of an expression referring to another. Usually, an anaphoric expression is represented by a pro-form or some other kind of deictic--for instance, a pronoun referring to its antecedent...

, as will be further explained below. Although this article deals primarily with deixis in spoken language, the concepts can apply to written language, gestures, and communication media as well. While this article draws examples primarily from English, deixis is believed to be a feature (to some degree) of all natural languages. The term’s origin is , the meaning point of reference in contemporary linguistics having been taken over from Chrysippus
Chrysippus of Soli was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was a native of Soli, Cilicia, but moved to Athens as a young man, where he became a pupil of Cleanthes in the Stoic school. When Cleanthes died, around 230 BC, Chrysippus became the third head of the school...


Traditional categories

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.


Person deixis concerns itself with the grammatical person
Grammatical person
Grammatical person, in linguistics, is deictic reference to a participant in an event; such as the speaker, the addressee, or others. Grammatical person typically defines a language's set of personal pronouns...

s 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. 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 he came to the rescue.

In many languages, the third-person masculine pronoun is often 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.

Also common is the use of the third-person plural
Singular they
Singular they is the use of they to refer to an entity that is not plural, or not necessarily plural. Though singular they is widespread in everyday English and has a long history of usage, debate continues about its acceptability...

, even when a singular pronoun is called for:
To each their own.

In languages which distinguish between masculine and feminine plural pronouns, such as French, the masculine is again used as default. "Ils vont à la bibliothèque" may refer either to a group of males or a group which comprises both genders. "Elles vont..." would only be used for a group of females.


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.

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.” It is interesting to note that while “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, while
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.

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
In linguistics, an addressee is an intended direct recipient of the speaker's communication. A listener is either an addressee or a bystander.Second-person pronouns refer to an addressee or a group including an addressee...

. English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 exemplifies this with such pairs as this and that, here and there, etc.

In other languages, the distinction is three-way: 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 and in Korean
Korean language
Korean is the official language of the country Korea, in both South and North. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in People's Republic of China. There are about 78 million Korean speakers worldwide. In the 15th century, a national writing...

, Japanese
Japanese language
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...

, Thai
Thai language
Thai , also known as Central Thai and Siamese, is the national and official language of Thailand and the native language of the Thai people, Thailand's dominant ethnic group. Thai is a member of the Tai group of the Tai–Kadai language family. Historical linguists have been unable to definitively...

, Filipino
Filipino language
This move has drawn much criticism from other regional groups.In 1987, a new constitution introduced many provisions for the language.Article XIV, Section 6, omits any mention of Tagalog as the basis for Filipino, and states that:...

 and Turkish
Turkish language
Turkish is a language spoken as a native language by over 83 million people worldwide, making it the most commonly spoken of the Turkic languages. Its speakers are located predominantly in Turkey and Northern Cyprus with smaller groups in Iraq, Greece, Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo,...

 The archaic English forms yon and yonder (still preserved in some regional dialects) once represented a distal category which has now been subsumed by the formerly medial "there".


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
Grammatical tense
A tense is a grammatical category that locates a situation in time, to indicate when the situation takes place.Bernard Comrie, Aspect, 1976:6:...

. 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). While 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 out 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.

while the pluperfect is relative to some other deictically specified time, as in
He had gone.

Other categories

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.


Discourse deixis, also referred to as text deixis, refers to the use of expressions within an utterance to refer to parts of the discourse
Discourse generally refers to "written or spoken communication". The following are three more specific definitions:...

 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 day.

“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.

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.

Switch reference
Switch reference
In linguistics, switch-reference describes any clause-level morpheme that signals whether certain prominent arguments in 'adjacent' clauses co-refer...

 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.


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

T-V distinctions, named for the Latin “tu” and “vos” (singular and plural versions of “you”) are 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.

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 lexicon
In linguistics, the lexicon of a language is its vocabulary, including its words and expressions. A lexicon is also a synonym of the word thesaurus. More formally, it is a language's inventory of lexemes. Coined in English 1603, the word "lexicon" derives from the Greek "λεξικόν" , neut...

s 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.

Anaphoric reference

Generally speaking, anaphora refers to the way in which a word or phrase relates to other text:
  • An exophoric reference
    In linguistic pragmatics, exophora is reference to something extralinguistic, i.e. not in the same text, and contrasts with endophora. Exophora can be deictic, in which special words or grammatical markings are used to make reference to something in the context of the utterance or speaker...

     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 provides the extra information that allows an individual Queen to be identified.
  • An endophoric reference
    In linguistics, endophora is a term that means an expression which refers to something intratextual, i.e. in the same text.For example, in the sentences "I saw Sally yesterday. She was lying on the beach", "she" is an endophoric expression because it refers to something already mentioned in the...

     refers to something inside of the text in which the reference is found.
    • An anaphoric reference
      Anaphora (linguistics)
      In linguistics, anaphora is an instance of an expression referring to another. Usually, an anaphoric expression is represented by a pro-form or some other kind of deictic--for instance, a pronoun referring to its antecedent...

      , 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 "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

A deictic center, sometimes referred to as an origo
In pragmatics, the origo is the reference point on which deictic relationships are based. In most deictic systems, the origo identifies with the current speaker . For instance, if the speaker, John, were to say "This is now my fish", then John would be the origo, and the deictic word "my" would be...

, 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. So, for example, in the sentence
I’m 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. 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.

Usages of deixis

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. 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
Article (grammar)
An article is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. Articles specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun, in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in the English language are the and a/an, and some...

, much the way "a" could be used in its place.

Deixis and indexicality

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. More importantly, each is associated with a different field of study; deixis is associated with linguistics, while indexicality is associated with philosophy.

See also

  • Indexicality
    In linguistics and in philosophy of language, an indexical behavior or utterance points to some state of affairs. For example, I refers to whoever is speaking; now refers to the time at which that word is uttered; and here refers to the place of utterance...

  • Anaphora
    Anaphora (linguistics)
    In linguistics, anaphora is an instance of an expression referring to another. Usually, an anaphoric expression is represented by a pro-form or some other kind of deictic--for instance, a pronoun referring to its antecedent...

  • Demonstrative
    In linguistics, demonstratives are deictic words that indicate which entities a speaker refers to and distinguishes those entities from others...

  • Generic antecedents
  • Pro-form
    A pro-form is a type of function word or expression that stands in for another word, phrase, clause or sentence where the meaning is recoverable from the context...

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Traut, Gregory P. and Kazzazi, Kerstin. 1996. Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. Routledge. London and New York.

External links

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