HOW IMPORTANT IS THE CONCEPT OF DEIXIS TO LANGUAGE WRITTEN
By Yusuf Kurniawan
Language is one of the most fundamental aspects of human’s life. Without
language one can not communicate properly. Since the antiquity or prehistoric
time people had used language for communication. However, the form of the
language is of course different from what we recognise today. Every language
has been developing from time to time. They underwent evolution that people
never realised. Even we could not imagine how languages become so complex
as we speak today. Every tribe, nation and country has their own languages. Let
alone, there are also a lot of vernaculars in every country that make languages
become more varied and complex. We probably could not trace back how the
languages exist at present were previously formed and shaped.
Besides the rapid progression of languages in the world, communication
devices like telegraph and telephone also have been diffusing so swiftly. People
now can communicate very easily and quickly. However, the essence of the
communication is actually not the devices but the message or information
delivered through language. In practice, language is used by people ‘to refer to
persons and things, directly or indirectly’. The first is called direct reference and
the latter is called indirect reference (Mey,1996:89). Such references are used
both in spoken and written language.
II. Background to the Essay Problem
Spoken and written language sometimes can be ambiguous to a hearer or an
addressee. He/she might misinterpret what a speaker says. Such case is often
related with deixis. The use of reference in an utterance that is not clear or
lacking of description often makes a hearer confused or even not understand.
Why? Because unclear reference can cause the utterance delivered by the
speaker ambiguous. In English there are finite and infinite nouns that both can
serve as references. Sometimes it is easy to understand a context of discourse if
the reference is clear, but sometimes it is difficult to comprehend because of the
lack of description in the reference. Besides, a hearer occasionally is not familiar
with the term, word or expression used by a speaker. And one might ignore the
use of finite nouns instead of the infinite ones. Moreover, one often forgets
especially in spoken language he/ she has a partner, that is the hearer. Or if it is
written, the writer has readers who read his writing. So, sometimes the speaker
has considered that the hearer has enough knowledge background and
reference about what he is talking about or what he is writing. If the hearer does
not have enough background of knowledge toward what is talked about, then it
makes the language uttered more difficult to understand. However, in language
written for performance, it is still not clear if the concept of deixis is important or
not, influential or not. So that in this essay I am going to analyse how important
the concept of deixis to language written for performance is. I shall use other
language, besides English, i.e. Indonesian as comparative examples.
‘Deixis means different things to different people’ (Cruse,2000:319). Or according
to Davis (2000) ‘deixis is equivalent to pointing. It derives from the same Greek
root that occurs in Digit, Index, Indexical namely expressions whose reference is
a function of the context of their utterance’. Some deictic forms like here, now,
you, this and that are considered some of the most obvious linguistic elements
which require contextual information for their interpretation (Brown & Yule,
2000:27). In his Meaning in Language (2000) Alan Cruse introduces that there
are five main types of deixis: person deixis, spatial deixis, temporal deixis, social
deixis, and discourse deixis. In order to be able to interpret elements of
discourse such as deixis, it is important to know who the speaker and the hearer
are, and also the time and place or location of the making of the discourse
(Brown & Yule, 2000:27). So in the rest of the analysis I am going to explain
further about deixis, especially the main types of deixis, in relation to language
written for performance.
III. 1 Person deixis
Person deixis refers to the use of pronouns of first, second and third person. The
first person is the speaker, and the second person is the addressee or the hearer.
While the third person is neither the speaker nor the hearer (Cruse,2000:319). In
this case we might look at the table below which shows the comparison between
personal pronouns in English and in Indonesian:
English Singular Plural
1st person I/ me we/ us
2 person you you
3rd person he/him/,she/her, it they/ them
1st person saya/aku kami/ kita
2nd person kau/ kamu kalian
3 person dia mereka
(Cruse,2000:320 & the writer’s data,2000)
The first-person personal pronouns in English and Indonesian have the same
type. However, the Indonesian personal pronouns do not have special form in the
object pronouns. So ‘saya’ and ‘aku’ which mean ‘I’ are the same in their forms
when they are used as a subject or an object. Both of them can substitute each
other. Besides, ‘kami’ and ‘kita’ which mean ‘we/us’ also have no difference in the
forms when they are used in a sentence as a subject or an object. Then the
second-person personal pronoun in English and Indonesian also have the same
form. In the sense that they can be used as a subject or an object without altering
it. While the third-person personal pronouns in English and Indonesian have a
significant difference. English third-person personal pronouns have clear genders
or sexes when they occupy subject or object, for she/her, he/him, and it. So it is
quite clear and easy to find out what the personal pronoun refers to in a
discourse. But, in Indonesian there is no difference of using the third-person
personal pronoun. ‘Dia’ is neutral; it means that it can be used to refer to he, she,
or it. And when it becomes a subject or an object in a sentence it will not change.
For more details let us look at some examples in the following sentences:
a. - I gave her a gift on her birthday last
- Saya memberi dia hadiah pada hari ulang tahunnya tahun lalu.
b. - He lent me some books for his lecture.
- Dia meminjami saya beberapa buku untuk mata kuliahnya.
c. - Mom left us frozen outside the house.
- Ibu membiarkan kami/kita kedinginan di luar rumah.
d. - We could not go to the party because of the rain.
- Kami/kita tidak jadi pergi ke pesta karena hujan.
e. - You never tell me about your girlfriend.
- Kamu tidak pernah memberitahu saya tentang pacarmu.
f. -I will tell you when we will leave.
- Saya/aku akan memberitahu kamu kapan kita akan berangkat.
g. - She kissed me and then cried.
- Dia mencium saya dan kemudian menangis.
h. - I kissed her and then left immediately.
- Saya mencium dia dan kemudian segera pergi.
(The writer’s data, 2000).
In the examples a and b there is no difference between the first person personal
pronoun in Indonesian when it is as a subject or an object. Also in the first person
plural in c and d, kami/kita is similar in use while it is as a subject or object in a
sentence. In the examples e and f it is the same of using the second person
personal pronoun in English as well as in Indonesian. However, in the third
person personal pronoun, the use of he, she, it, compared to the use of dia in
Indonesian differs very much.
From the examples given, it is clear that there is no difference in the use of
the first and second-person personal pronouns in English and Indonesian. The
difference is in using Indonesian third-person personal pronoun, since it merely
has one form namely ‘dia’ for any gender and thing. Moreover, all of the
Indonesian personal pronouns can be used as a subject and an object in a
sentence. Therefore, it is quite difficult in Indonesian to trace the reference of the
personal pronouns especially in a long discourse. Moreover, what makes the
Indonesian personal pronouns more difficult is the possessive pronoun for the
third person. The suffix ‘-nya’ that is embedded in a noun is sometimes difficult to
know, to what person or pronoun it refers to. Unlike the English possessive
pronouns, for example ‘he’ will change into ‘his’, ‘she’ becomes ‘her’ and so on.
To make it clearer we can look at the sentences below:
(i) Amanda came to my flat but her book was left.
(ii) Amanda datang ke flat saya tetapi bukunya tertinggal.
(The writer’s data, 2000).
The suffix ‘nya’ that shows the possessive pronoun of Amanda is not very clear
since it has only one form, whatever the subject is. In the sentences above it is
still clear that the suffix refers to Amanda. However, in a long text or discourse
that involves more subjects and objects it will be sometimes difficult to know the
suffix ‘-nya’ refers to. Now, look at the other example:
(i) Baru-baru ini para ahli sosiologi menemukan sebuah fenomena baru
bahwa banyak gadis Indonesia dibawah umur yang ‘menjual tubuhnya’
demi sesuap nasi. Santi dan Nela mengaku dia melakukan itu karena
terpaksa, disebabkan perekonomian keluarganya yang sangat pas-
pasan. Mereka menduga bahwa hal ini disebabkan oleh krisis ekonomi
yang berkepanjangan di negeri ini. Dampaknya sangat terasa dalam
(ii) Recently, some sociologists discovered a new phenomenon that there are
a lot of Indonesian adolescent girls who practise prostitution for the sake
of some food. Santi and Nela confessed that they had to do that because
of their family’s bad economy. They thought that it is caused by the
endless economic crisis in this country. Its impact is badly felt in their life.
(The writer’s data, 2000)
Note: ‘menjual tubuhnya’ = ‘selling their bodies’ = practising prostitution
Suppose that the example given is a TV or radio news, there is a little bit
confusion in the use of ’mereka’ as the plural personal pronoun that may refer to
the sociologists or the girls. And the use of possessive adjective –nya embedded
at the word keluarganya, dampaknya, kehidupannya can be ambiguous because
the deictics is not quite clear. However, the ambiguity can be overcome if the
hearer knows the context and has background knowledge of the topic being
III.2 Spatial deixis
According to AlanCruse (2000), spatial deixis refers to locative adverbs like here
and there and demonstrative adjective like this and that. The use of such space
markers is sometimes not clear, especially if the hearer is not directly involved
face to face with the speaker during the conversation happen. In performance the
use of adverbs and demonstrative adjectives can be ambiguous if it is not used
appropriately. Usually, here, there, this and that can cause ambiguity when they
are used in a long discourse. Moreover, if the hearer does not have enough
background of reference about what is being talked about may think that the
discourse ambiguous. The following examples give clearance that spatial deixis
might cause ambiguity: I want to buy this, this and that. Even though the
sentence is short, but it consists of deictic words. Somehow, a hearer will not
know what this and that really refer to if he is not at the same place when the
speaker speaks. We just recognise that the speaker wants to buy something.
And he could be anywhere when he utters such sentence, maybe in a butcher
shop, in a market etc.
III.3 Temporal deixis
‘Temporal deictics function to locate points or intervals on the time axis, using the
moment of utterance as a reference point’ (Cruse,2000:321). Furthermore, Cruse
says that the time axis is divided into three major groups, namely: a) before the
moment of utterance, b) at the time of utterance, and c) after the time of
utterance (2000:321). When we are talking about time it is something that we
have to pay attention very well. Because if we do not clearly mention the time
markers in a discourse, written or spoken, then it might be ambiguous to the
hearer. The most common temporal deixis in English is now and then (Cruse,
2000). These two words are very flexible to use in a discourse. And they are very
relative. For example, when I say : Now I am pursuing MA of Communications
Studies in the University of Leeds. ‘Now’ refers to a certain length of time when I
start the program until I hopefully can finish my program. ‘Now’ is not merely
interpreted as at that moment when I uttered the sentence. However, let us
compare with the following sentence: I am reading a book now. ‘Now’ in the
sentence just refers to a point of time that is relatively short. If it is compared to
Indonesian, there is not much difference in meaning. As is the case with ‘then’. It
is a relative time marker in a discourse. Sometimes, in a certain context ‘then’
does not point to a definite time that make the hearer exactly sure. For instance,
when I say: Ok, I will see you then. How could we interpret the word then
exactly? In this case the meaning of then is quite relative. One may interpret it as
still on the same day but on the other occasion, or one may interpret it as on the
different day, say the next day, on the same occasion. However, now and then do
not cause much ambiguity in a discourse as long as the addressee know the
The tenses in English can also be considered deictic (Cruse,2000).
Especially when an utterance is not accompanied with definite time markers. For
example in the sentence: She was very beatiful. ‘Was’ refers to the past time
which the hearer does not exactly know when it was. It is different from when I
say: When she was 20s she was very beautiful, it is much clearer. Another
example: Last year my friend graduated from Leeds. Even though it can be quite
clear to the hearer, and I think the hearer will not ask when it was exactly, there is
an unclear point of time here. Last year might be inferred to the month on which
the speaker says to the month in year before, or it can be interpreted on any
month in the year before.
III.4 Social deixis
Social deixis according to Cruse (2000:322) ‘is exemplified by certain uses of the
so-called TV (tul vous) pronouns in many languages.’ It is used to point out to a
reference based on the class of the speaker and the person that he refers to.
Such deixis is not too significant in English since it does not have distinct
differentiation of referring to other person who has higher social level. But in
Indonesian, social deixis plays an important role in indexing. Compare the
(i) President Suharto founded the foundation in 1982. He resigned from
presidency in May 1997.
(ii) Presiden Suharto mendirikan yayasan itu pada tahun 1982. Beliau
mengundurkan diri dari jabatan kepresidenan pada bulan Mei 1997.
(The writer’s data,2000)
The use of he that refers to President Suharto in (i) is not a problem in English.
There is no indication of being impolite or improper to refer to such high social
level of person. However, in Indonesian such use of pronoun does matter.
Therefore, in sentence (ii) I use ‘beliau’ instead of ‘dia’. The word ’beliau’ in the
sentence is equal to dia or he but it has higher social level. It will be improper or
impolite if I use dia to address someone who has a higher social level. Or it can
also be used to show a politeness of a speaker to someone he addresses,
directly or indirectly.
III.5 Discourse deixis
Discourse deixis deals with the use of some words like ‘this to point to future
discourse elements, that is, things which are about to be said’ (Cruse,2000:323).
For example in ‘Watch this!’ And the word that to point to past discourse
elements (Cruse,2000:323), such as in ‘That is not a good idea.’ Moreover, Cruse
(2000) says that the sentence adverbs like therefore and furthermore can also
generate ambiguous meaning. It means that if a hearer does not follow a
discourse from the beginning, then if he finds such adverbs, he might find them
deictic in the discourse.
In conclusion, based on the analysis, the concept of deixis to language written for
performance is very important. One must look at what type of performance that
deixis would be used. If it is intended to deliver information, like TV or radio news,
the written language should not use deixis that are too complicated. The
description of the reference should be clear, because the aim of this performance
is not to entertain listeners, but to present information. Therefore, the language
used must be clear and straightforward in order not to make them misled or
misunderstood. However, if the performance has a purpose of entertaining, like a
film, a theatre or an opera, then the language used may be combined with deictic
words. Because in a fiction or story deixis can generate a thrill and curiosity of the
readers or listeners. And even this can be manipulated as an attracting power
toward the listeners to keep on watching a film or reading a novel.
One thing that differentiates between spoken and written language is that
we can not repeat what a speaker says. Even though it is possible to request the
speaker to repeat what he said, if it happens in a conversation. However, we can
not ask a TV broadcaster to repeat what she said on TV or it is impossible to
request an actor in an opera or film to repeat what he says. But, in written
language we can review the discourse as many times as we want in order to
understand what the speaker says.
Brown, Gillian & Yule, George (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Cruse, Alan (2000). Meaning in Language: An Introduction to Semantics and
Pragmatics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Davis, B (2000). Discourse Analysis Lecture: Lecture 3 – Deixis and Reference.
Lectured on October 2000.
Mey, Jacob L (1996). Pragmatics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers