Pragmatics: deixis

Last week we had an interesting time working our way through the chapter on deixis.* I have a very happy memory of discovering deixis when I was doing my MA in Applied Linguistics at the University Essex in 1975-1976.

I’d come from teaching literature to very able fourth year B.Ed. students and we were tackling Dickens’ big books including Little Dorrit. It always makes an interesting class to go back to a novel’s opening paragraphs when one has finished reading the book to see how the themes of the book are adumbrated in the opening section. For two years I had attempted this with my students and we had realised eventually that there was something very odd about the opening of Little Dorrit. For two years we had had to declare ourselves defeated in our attempts to describe what this was.

I had chosen Stylistics as one of my options in my course at Essex and been delighted by the discovery that, at long last, there was a link between Literature and Language studies. The old failure to analyse the peculiarity of the opening of Little Dorrit seemed a perfect opportunity to try out my newly learned knowledge of Linguistics.

One happy afternoon I settled down to read it again and realised that the oddity of the text consisted in its failure to be precise about where and when the entities in the passage were operating. I took my problem to David Kilby, one of my lecturers, and he immediately recognised that what I had no word for was deixis and referred me to John Lyons Theoretical Linguistics. This has only a page and a half on the subject, but it was enough for me to do a word by word analysis of the passage. The precision of this stylistic analysis enabled me to account for the oddness of this opening of the novel and to relate it to the Christian message of the book as a whole.

I wrote it up for my course in Stylistics and shortly after Ron Carter published it in one of the early books of practical Stylistics  in this country.**


*Introducing Pragmatics in Use: Anne O’Keefe, Brian Clancy, Svenja Adolphs, Routledge 2011

**Language and Literature: ed. Ronald Carter, Allen and Unwin, 1982