The concept of deictic centre
Deixis deals with the words and expressions whose reference relies entirely on the circumstances of the utterance. For that reason these special expressions and their meaning in discourse can only be understood in light of these circumstances. The term deictic centre underlines that the deictic term has to relate to the situation exactly at the point where the utterance is made or the text is written. One could even say that the deictic centre is the unmarked "anchorage point" from which the utterance is made. To decode the meaning of a sentence we use a "navigation system". In our day-to-day conversational exchanges, the speaker does not consciously use deictic expressions, as well as the adressee usually understands the utterance immediately (meaning that the adressee does not need much time to think about an utterance before understanding the message). Deixis makes discourse easier and more effective, giving us a means to pass more information in less time. Nevertheless, there are certain situations making an interpretation difficult or even impossible, mostly when we only get chunks of information and therefore lack context. If, for example, a person tells a story and forgets to give the essential information a deictic term refers to, we will grow aware of the weakness the deictic system features. Or if the fax machine just receives the second page of a letter, beginning with "Then he was quite embarrassed about it " - the adressee will never be able to guess what "then", "he" and "it" stands for. Similar gaps arise if we read about an utterance made in the past and lack information about the references. Although the adressee at that time could easily have understood the sense, we may not be capable of getting the original meaning. Even if we knew the context in detail, this might not be sufficient to understand discourse, for example if a special gesture is made when pointing at a building while saying: "I lived there two years ago."
The Greek origin of the term deixis meaning pointing via language already hints at its function. According to Yule (1996:9), "Deixis is clearly a form of referring that is tied to the speaker´s context". This again leads us to the concept of deictic centre. The deictic centre can be divided into certain sub-centres'. 1. Central person (speaker): Personal pronouns, I (Speaker), you (Addresse) 2. Central time (coding time): Adverbs of time, now and then 3. Central place (the location of the speaker): Adverbs of space, here and there 4. Discourse centre (the point of the speaker´s discourse): Adverbs of time and place, conjunctions 5. Social centre (the speaker´s social status relative to the Adressee´s)
Next we can distinguish between proximal terms (like here, now, this - near to the speaker) and distal terms (like there, then, that - away from the speaker). It is important to note that in context of deixis and grammar, when direct speech is shifted into indirect speech, the proximal forms also shift into the corresponding distal forms. Compare the two following sentences: "You were here this morning?"
I asked him whether he had been there that morning.
In contrast to the effect of "immediateness" proximal deictic forms create, the reported speech utterance normally makes the original speech event seem more remote. In the following section, I shall discuss some forms of deixis in detail.
These seemingly simple forms are sometimes quite tricky in their use. Children often have problems using personal pronouns. The three pronouns from first to third person I, you and he, she, it are in many languages elaborated with markers of relative social status (social deixis). Expressions indicating a higher social status are called honorifics. In German or French, there is a special social aspect about a familiar form of you (Du/tu) and an unfamiliar one (Sie/Vous). The use of either...
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