Not just ‘here’ and ‘there’: The language of deixis

Deixis refers to pointing by using language. Deixis seems to be universal – all languages have a system for denoting at least two dimensions of deixis: ‘here’ and ‘there’. Deixis is marked either by deictic markers without person reference ‘here’, ‘there’, or deictic markers with person reference, ‘s/he /that here’, ‘s/he /that there’. Almost without exception, deictic words are accompanied by gestures.
Deictic systems are very interesting – their purpose is clearly communicative and they are deeply rooted in our cognitive system. Think of a hunting situation: a speaker wants to communicate to a companion that a game animal is hiding among the bushes. Or that a dangerous snake has been seen among the rocks.

-Where? asks the second speaker.
-Over there! answers the first speaker, pointing in the direction of the presumed hiding animal.
-Where over there? Did you really see it yourself?
-No, I am not sure … I thought I saw something...

In situations such as these, languages have found out different effective ways to standardize the communication, often by means of intricate and complex systems of deixis. But even if the preconditions for deixis is imprinted in our brains, the ways in which systems come out is highly diverse and pronounced cultural.

Deictic systems – at least the ones we are used to – typically distinguish two or three dimensions of deixis): ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘over there’. In language, these dimensions are also mirrored in the sound structure of their words – a phenomenon that seems to be almost universal. Forms for ‘here’ are expressed by sounds that have higher frequency, e.g., vowels i, e or consonants such as s, t. In contrast, forms for ‘there’ are expressed by sound with lower frequency, such as the vowels a, o, u, and consonants m,b. This has to do with our apprehension of our surrounding environment: we associate closeness with familiarity, safety, smallness and higher voice or pitch, whereas we associate distance with unfamiliarity, threat, large size, and a lower voice or pitch. To fully understand this phenomenon, think about the sound of a cat versus the growl of a tiger. Which one do we want to have closer? This opposition between high and low frequency in here- and there-forms is stable in languages. If is becomes distorted by change in the sound structure, the opposition becomes restored within generations.

Besides forms for the basic deictic distinctions, some languages have expanded their deictic systems in various directions, introducing a large amount of additional information.
A system such as this is found in Kamaiurá, a Tupí-Guaraní language spoken in Upper Xingu, Brazil. Kamaiurá is a prototypical Amazonian language: they have mother-in-law language, evidentiality (linguistic ‘truth-marking’), male versus female speech, and nominal tense. In the system of deictic terms, there are four basic dimensions of deixis, ‘s/he /that here’ (close to speaker), ‘s/he /that there’ (close to listener), or ‘s/he /that over there’ (away from both speaker and listener), and ‘s/he /that over there’ (far away from both speaker and listener). Besides these four basic dimensions, there is a large set of forms, in total around 20. In normal speech, such as when someone tells a story or reports an event, these deictic forms are highly important: they communicate a number of dimensions of an event: the time, the place, the role of the speaker, what may come next, or what the speaker or the participants know or don’t know, as well as modalities, feelings, and so forth.
One deictic form denotes ‘s/he/ that, close to speaker but invisible’ – a form used for instance about someone talking inside a house, who is heard through the door. Another form is used to mark that the referent is more or less close, heard but not seen, and again, another form marks that the referent is over there, neither heard nor seen, and the speaker is uncertain about its status – the source is secondary, ‘hearsay’. There is also a that form refers to ‘that guy I don’t know the name of’ or ‘the guy I don’t remember’, and one form notes that someone is close but not visible: this is used for instance when talking about an absent son. Further, forms may denote that someone is moving away or is located close to something else of importance. The system is impossible to learn for an outsider: since the use of the forms are consolidated in each and every situation the language is used, only native speakers can learn to master the system in full.
References: (Carling et al. 2017; Diessel 2011; Johansson and Carling 2015)
Coming up next: The Tocharians, the mysterious people who travelled more than 4000 km and ended up in a desert
Carling, Gerd, et al. (2017), 'Deixis in narrative: a study of Kamaiurá, a Tupí- Guaraní language of Upper Xingu, Brazil', Revista Brasilieira de Linguística Antropológica, 9 (1), 13-48.
Diessel, Holger (2011), 'Deixis Demonstratives', in Claudia Maienborn, Klaus von Heusinger, and Paul Portner (eds.), Semantics: An International Handbook of Natural Language Meaning (Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science (Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science): 33 (1-3); Berlin, Germany: de Gruyter Mouton), 2407-32.
Johansson, Niklas and Carling, Gerd (2015), 'The de-iconization and rebuilding of iconicity in spatial deixis', Acta Linguistica Hafniensia: International Journal of Linguistics, 47 (1), 4.

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