Me, myself and I: the language of egocentric points of view (research digest)

30/11/2015

Reading time: 7 minutes

One aspect of the language of point of view is what is known as deixis. Deictic words ‘point’ to entities, places or moments in time, but, notably, in doing so signal the subjective position of the speaker in that instance of pointing. Words like ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now’ are deictic. The special characteristic of deictic words is that in order to understand which person, thing, place or time the words are referring to, you need to know the context in which the words were used – who by, where, when, etc. For example, if you opened a charity fundraising letter which began with “As I stand here looking at this family now”, the words ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘I’ are only meaningful and interpretable if you know who the speaker is, where their ‘here’ is, and the date/time at which they spoke. ‘This’ suggests a referent near (or ‘proximal’) to their ‘here’ (as opposed to ‘that’, which suggests distance). This contextual information – the spatiotemporal co-ordinates of the subjective position of the speaker – is known as the deictic centre. Deictic words communicate the person, thing, place or time they are referring to in relation to that subjective deictic centre, and so signal that subjective centre as much as they signal the person or thing etc. that they are referring to. There are three main categories of deixis:

  • Person deixis, e.g. personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’, etc.; demonstrative pronouns ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘that’, etc.
  • Spatial deixis, e.g. locative expressions ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘nearby’, etc. and verbs suggesting direction towards or away from the speaker (‘come’ and ‘go’).
  • Temporal deixis, e.g. temporal adverbs ‘now’, ‘then’, etc., and other temporal expressions such as ‘tomorrow’, ‘next year’, ‘a while ago’, etc.

In fiction, deictic language helps to build the spaces and temporal settings of fictional worlds, and helps to determine the positioning and orientation of narrators and characters within worlds.

In her article ‘Deixis and Fictional Minds’, Elena Semino looks at how the subjective viewpoints of protagonists are portrayed through their use of deictic language. She focusses on two unusual minds: that of the poetic persona of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Wodwo’, and that of Christopher, the first person narrator of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She reveals some distinct peculiarities in the way the characters use deictic language. The linguistic details of these peculiarities corroborate some of the literary criticism about the two texts, and enrich our understanding of exactly how these fictional minds are constructed as unusual.

The poetic persona of Hughes’ poem, the ‘wodwo’ of the title, is a wild, sprite-like creature. Semino begins her analysis of the poem by pointing out that the poem’s free verse form, non-standard punctuation (including capitalisation only of ‘I’) and fragmented syntax create an effect of disorientation, anxiety and rushed, chaotic movement. She perceives a lack of boundaries and an impression of the speaker as primitive and self-focussed. She observes repeated references to lack of roots and to searching, suggesting themes of origins and identity. Semino then reflects on how the deictic language contributes to these impressions. She reveals:

  • the unusual frequency of the speaker’s reference to itself (13% of the words are the person deictic words ‘I’ or ‘me’).
  • the frequency of spatial deixis referring to places near the speaker (proximal deixis), in contrast to use of only ‘that’ and ‘go’ to refer to things or places further away from speaker, or to movement in that direction (distal deixis)
  • the use of present tense verbs only, reflecting the immediate ‘now’ of the speaker, with no reference to a past or future outside of that immediate context.

Semino argues that the lack of distal deixis works with the free verse structure and lack of punctuation to make it hard for the reader to distinguish between the different times and places of the speaker’s action, creating a sense of confusion and lack of boundaries. She also argues that the wodwo focuses on itself, and its ‘here’ and ‘now’, without reference to or distinction in relation to other places, times and beings. This all contributes to sense of a mind unable to differentiate the world beyond its own immediate experience.

Semino next analyses the deixis of Christopher, Haddon’s narrator, and explores how the deictic patterning here contributes to the impression of a mind with autism. She starts by noting some salient linguistic features of Christopher’s narration, such as his (generally) limited vocabulary. She then turns to Christopher’s inability to use deictic pronouns (like ‘he’ or ‘it’) to refer to people or things he’s just mentioned, instead repeating full noun phrases (such as ‘the man’ and ‘the window’), arguably reflecting a difficulty in comprehending his environment. She also foregrounds Christopher’s unusually high use of the deictic pronoun ‘I’, and his unusually low of use of ‘you’ (apart from, occasionally, a general ‘you’, as in ‘one’) and of ‘we’, suggesting a limited will or ability to talk about, and relate to, the mental states and beliefs of others.

Semino cites the interpretative impressions of several literary critics who talk about the speakers of these texts as having unusual minds. She uses her analysis of the deixis in the two texts, and its integration with other salient features, to show the linguistic bases of these interpretations of the speakers’ nonstandard and egocentric ways of seeing their worlds.

This is a digest of the following article: Semino, E. (2011) ‘Deixis and fictional minds’, Style 45(3), 418-440.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

  1. Semino explains, in her article, that when discussing ‘Wodwo’ with her students, she asked them to pick out some of the lines in which they felt the deixis was unusual and challenged them to change the wording to a version they felt was closer to that which they’d expect – something more standard. She gave the example of lines like ‘… if I go / to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees’ (lines 21-22). By intervening in and rewriting extracts, students become more aware of the particular effects of the words used. Deictic language is frequent in the poems studied in Poetic voices (AS and A level). Students could be guided through examining the effects of the deictic patterning in the poetry of John Donne, Robert Browning, Carol Ann Duffy or Seamus Heaney through rewriting some of the more deictically dense lines. By comparing alternative versions, students can explore how the subjective points of view of the poetic personas are constructed as more or less standard and as more or less egocentric.
  1. Deixis is used in literary narration to construct and convey the parameters of a fictional world and the position and perspective of a speaker within it. We use deixis in spoken discourse, too, to depict remembered places, to enable a hearer to imagine and orient themselves within the surroundings. However, places can be described equally vividly without any use of orienting deixis – without reference to a particular perspective. In looking at the anthology of texts explored in Remembered places (AS and A level), students could investigate which speakers tend to convey remembered places with little or no deixis, and which speakers depict a place through reference to a perspective within it. In the latter case, students could explore whether that perspective is the speaker’s own remembered position or a ‘projected’ position. Students could also explore collaborative use of deixis, in conversational interactions, whereby speakers negotiate and clarify subjective positions and orientations within their respective imaginative conceptualisations of the place.
  1. Within her article, Semino reports how she compared the frequency of the wodwo’s and Christopher’s uses of ‘I’ with the frequency of ‘I’ in the ‘Imaginative Writing’ section of the British National Corpus Sampler (which contains approximately 233 000 words). In doing so, she verified her intuition that the wodwo and Christopher use ‘I’ much more frequently than is standard in imaginative writing, providing clear evidence of their comparative egocentricity. CLiC 1.0 (see http://clic.bham.ac.uk/) is a freely available online corpus tool which can be used by students for personal investigations like these within their work on Making connections (A level).
  2. As mentioned above, Semino looks at how Christopher’s limited vocabulary contributes to her impressions of his mind. Authors construct a character’s personal vocabulary, at the level of lexis, and combine this with personal styles of expression at higher discourse levels, such as styles of phrasing, of conversational interaction, and so on, to convey a fully-fledged, believable and individual ‘mind’. Students can explore how authors create characters’ mind styles through this combination of personal vocabulary and expressions in their study of their set novel Imagined worlds (A level) and use this to construct their own voices when completing textual intervention tasks Writing about society (A level).

 

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