A Boxing Day cartoon by Wayno (with Dan Piraro at Bizarro studios North):

(#1) Wayno’s title:”New Year, New Symbol: Introducing the Pipe of Ambiguity”

Here, this picks out, or points to, the image just above it, which is indeed a symbol. In general, this has no fixed meaning, instead gaining its meaning from the context it’s in.

Expressions that work this way are called deictic expressions. NOAD offers the further examples

here, you, me, that one therenext Tuesday

The particular usage in #1 is a subcase of what I called Deictic Predication in my 5/2/20 posting “This is a pipe”:

My nonce name for a clause construction in English (also usable for its close parallels in French and some other languages), with default form and interpretation:

Deictic Predication:

Subject: a demonstrative (this / these / that / those)

Predicate: a PRS form of be + a Pred(icate) NP

Interpretation: the Subject overtly (when accompanied by a pointing gesture to some target) or covertly (by being juxtaposed to some target) refers to the target, and the clause asserts that the Pred NP applies to it

So: I stand close to some creature, and either point to it or just announce This is a wolf, thereby asserting that this creature is a wolf. Or I stand close to some person, and either point to them or just announce This is Joe, thereby asserting that this person is some contextually salient person named Joe.

That posting continues:

These are straightforward examples of Deictic Predication. But it’s a flexible construction, and a major conventional extension of its flexibility — this is absolutely everday English usage — is for demonstratives as used with simulacra or reproductions: drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures. As far as I can tell, the demonstrative in Deictic Predication in such cases can always be used to refer not to the simulacra but to the the things those simulacra represent.

(#2) Ceci est une pipe

This is a pipe, in conjunction with a drawing, painting, photograph, or sculpture of a pipe, straightforwardly can always be an assertion not about the image but about the thing itself. (In fact, such locutions most often are.) That is a brute fact about usage. It’s a systematic metonymy.

So, in fact, the image in #1 could also be captioned This is a pipe.

Further examples from that posting:


(#4) This is me at the hardware store

The surrealist paradoxical variant: the original Magrittean disavowal Ceci n’est pas une pipe ‘This is not a pipe’:

(#5) from 7/10/17 “Taking the Magrittean Disavowal at face value”: “In Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, the text disavows the image … so you have the choice of trusting the image (in which case, the text is false) or trusting the text (in which case, the image is counterfeit).”

(There’s a Page on this blog about postings on Magrittean disavowals.)

But #1 and #2 are in not paradoxical or in any way remarkable.

An academic masterpiece. Return now to the larger topic of deixis (NOAD: “noun deixisLinguistics the function or use of deictic words, forms, or expressions.”) Here there’s a source that I view as a masterpiece of academic writing (from linguistics), something that should be much more widely known, in part because it’s great fun. From John Lawler’s webpages:

Fillmore’s 1971 Santa Cruz Deixis Lectures

In the summer of 1971, Professor Charles Fillmore delivered a set of six lectures at the University of California, Santa Cruz on the topic of Deixis, which was at the time a new idea in linguistics. Fillmore’s lectures have become classics of linguistic writing — clear, fascinating, full of familiar facts put together in surprising ways, and (as I can attest, because I was in the audience) delivered with great charm, and perfect comedic timing.

The lectures were later distributed for many years as samizdaţ by the Indiana University Linguistics Club, and finally published as a book in the 1990s. Every linguist is or should be familiar with them, but practically nobody else has ever heard of them.

Therefore, as a public educational service, I have scanned my old IULC copy and put them up on the Web, so that I and other teachers can link to them. The quality of reproduction is lousy, but — in my estimation, and that of many others — they’re the best linguistic writing of the 20th century. They’re worth it.

There are six lectures, available either as a single (3 MB)  or as individual PDFs, around 500 KB each

This is the crude, but cheapest possible, version.

There’s also the more durable (but costly) version from CSLI Publications at Stanford Univ. Summarized on that site:

Lectures on Deixis by Charles Fillmore (1997)

Every language has lexical items and grammatical forms which can be interpreted only when the sentences in which they occur are understood as being anchored in some social context. This context must be defined in such a way as to identify the participants in the communication act, their location in space, and the time during which the communication act is performed. Aspects of language which require this sort of contextualization are known as deictic forms.

These forms are the subject of this series of lectures given by Charles J. Fillmore. The lectures reprinted here were given in Santa Cruz in the summer of 1971. Fillmore begins this series of lectures with the thorough examination of one simple English sentence, “May we come in?” He then devotes two lectures to non-deictic conceptions of space and time. Spatial and temporal notions that have no connection to the observer’s points of view are examined as a preface to the examination of deictic conceptions of these notions. Deictically anchored conceptions of space and time are then addressed with special attention to the motion verbs “come” and “go”. Finally, Fillmore takes up the topics of discourse and social deixis. Discourse deixis. Discourse deixis examines the choice of lexical and grammatical elements which indicate of otherwise refer to some portion or aspect of the ongoing discourse. Social deixis studies that aspect of sentences which reflect or establish or are determined by certain realities of the social situation in which the speech act occurs.

These ideas and thoughts are presented in their original and highly readable forms. These lectures will serve, as they have for the past twenty-five years, as a foundation for the study of deictic forms.

All this starting from simple everyday examples like This is a symbol and This is a pipe.

5 Responses to “this”

  1. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    I taught with Chuck (and David Perlmutter) in a short summer course in Denmark shortly after he gave the Santa Cruz lectures. Chuck’s class was more or less a reprise of those lectures, so I can say I heard (pretty much) the originals. They were, indeed, wonderful.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    This can also refer to the speaker, especially (perhaps only?) on the telephone or the like: “This is Robert Coren, I’m calling about…”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, this has a large number of uses. I wasn’t proposing to survey them, only to connect to some directly involved in the Bizarro cartoon.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        Fair enough, I just thought that my observation had some connection to the “this is Joe” example.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        Ah, on the telephone-identification formula: well, yes, it’s connected to the propinquity-deixis use of this, but isn’t the same thing; technically, it’s self-referential. Then there’s an announcement use of this, a kind of cataphora: And now this… (followed by a news report, a new image of some kind, etc.). And more…

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