I’m not here right now

Back in the bad old days when deconstruction was cool, it was a commonplace that writing came before speech.  This is of course wrong in terms both of ontogeny and of phylogeny: language existed for tens of thousands of years in the absence of writing, and people almost invariably learn to speak and listen before they learn to read and write (I guess Helen Keller might be an exception).  You could point this out, but the fact that the statement wasn’t true didn’t seem to make anyone feel that they needed to stop saying it.  English classes could be a bit like Fox News panels, that way.*

For most of the history of language, every linguistic message was sent and received at the same time and place (within a second or two, let’s say, and within shouting distance), and our languages reflect this in interesting ways.  Languages contain many ways of expressing meaning that cannot be fully understood without knowing the context of utterance.  These features are called deixis, from a Greek word for ‘pointing,’ and the words that accompany pointing are a good example; any blind person who has been told “It’s right over there!”  will have a feeling for how little words like “over there” mean when you don’t have contextual info.  In addition to place (here, there, also the difference between come and go or bring and take) there are deictic expressions for time (now, tomorrow) and person (I, you).  Words like Mom also depend for their interpretation on who is speaking.

Technology has broken the connection that gave these expressions unambiguous meanings, though we can generally figure things out by supposing that the “here” and “now” in a written text refer to the place and time of writing.  (Sportswriters don’t seem to think their readers have the wit to manage this, though, and will write things like “Gardenhire said “We hope the bilateral leg weakness will be gone [today],” not trusting us to know that yesterday’s tomorrow is today.  There are, however, fascinating (to me) exceptions to this rule of egocentrism.  You sometimes hear this message on an answering machine: “I’m not here right now”; the now in question is the now of the caller receiving the message, not that of the speaker.  Indeed, that sentence, until recently, was impossible exept as a joke (like “Are you sleeping?” “Yes.”), though I don’t think most of the people who use it realize what a bold semantic move they’re making.

There are also non-technological reasons for displacing the center of deixis from the speaker, as can be seen in verbs like come and go or bring and take.  My sister A used to correct me when I said something like “I’ll bring the towels,” on the theory that bring refers to motion in the direction of the speaker and take to motion away from the speaker.  What’s wrong with this theory is that language is, at bottom, not a representation of physical reality but of mental reality.**  If you are talking about a party, then that party forms the center of the discourse and it is natural to say “What can I bring?”  If you are not going to the party (or not already talking about it), it is not natural to view the party as the imagined location of discourse, and you might say “She went to a party and she took all the wine.”

Finally, I am fascinated by departures from I-centrism in person discourse, because I think they reflect something deep about people.  I’m sure you’ve heard something like “Tell Mommy what happened,” spoken by Mommy herself—perhaps the parents in question don’t think their children will understand that “I” spoken by their mother refers to her, but in any case Mommy is putting herself in the child’s place.  One member of my household has taken this to another level: if she is speaking to her niece, she will invariably refer to her own father as Grandpa, adopting the niece’s point of view.  This works fine, but I have been present at family gatherings where a story about “Great-Grandpa” produced confusion as each person made a different guess about whose GGP was being talked about (it certainly wasn’t the speaker’s).  It should be noted that the person in question is deeply empathetic and considerate; I myself never do this kind of thing, and I suspect that I am less likely, in general, to put myself in another person’s position.

I suppose that I find deixis a particularly compelling topic because it points up that language evolved as a mode of person-to-person interaction, and this is something that lots of otherwise smart people, in their quest for abstraction, find it too easy to forget.


*I think that asserting the primacy of writing was intended to combat the Romantic idea of pure authorship, which fetishized spontaneous utterance and the individual imagination.  The idea is that whatever you say is always already written, that is, you will end up expressing aspects of culture and ideology that are embedded in the language you must use.  There’s some truth in this, but if this is what Derrida meant, one might reasonably ask why he didn’t bloody well say it.  My own theory on the French tradition of bad-boy posturing is that people who as children forced to recopy their whole stupid cahier every time they make a write-o can be expected later to act out in unappealing ways.  But I digress.


**Well, what’s wrong with  the theory is that it doesn’t describe anyone’s actual practice, and therefore has no basis.

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3 Responses to I’m not here right now

  1. apolena says:

    Roy, I love this entry.. exactly the kinds of issues that I find among the most fascinating in the world. Would love to engage with it thoughtfully and deeply, but, alas, I only allowed myself to sneak on your blog as part of a break in my own (tedious) writing process. So, just a couple of quick points, even loose associations as they occurred to me.

    On your answering machine musing — Magritte wondered about it, too, right? “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”… and if I’m not mistaken, Foucault analyzed it somewhere…?

    On the kids.. actually, at the beginning, when they start to speak, they don’t “get” pronouns — they are kinda hard to conceive of, actually, because though who is “mom” varies, who is “I” varies in even more mind-boggling ways. So, I think at that point, it is helping the kid to understand what’s going on (though, granted, the practice probably survives longer than it needs because we find it so “cute”..)

    And on the same: in Bengali, for instance, but also many other languages (and so cultures) the nomenclature for relatives is far more thoroughgoing than in English, so that there are titles for “the uncle who is my mother’s younger/middle/oldest brother” etc, as I’m sure you know. I gave this some thought, and concluded that, actually, far from resulting in confusion, this system gives you — a visitor — a perfect picture of the relations within the family, if you just listen to the people talking to one another for a while: you know instantly who is related to whom and how. …Except, of course, that sometimes, and often enough, many of those “titles” are also used somewhat metaphorically, i.e., an “uncle” or “grandma” does not necessarily have to be related to you by blood, but *structurally* you relate to them as though they were… …aah… there are so many specifications and elaborations that could be still made, but I have already exceeded my self-imposed time limit.

    Again: loved that post, thanks!

    • Roy says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post–I noted that my linguistics posts don’t get as many readers when they don’t mention boobs.

      1) Magritte non-pipe belongs to the same class of Mobius-like constructions, as do many Escher drawings…Douglas Hofstadter’s _Godel, Escher, Bach_ has very interesting things to say about them. I get little or no pleasure from Foucault, so can’t comment on him.
      2) Yes, I suppose it’s true that deixis is a challenge for kids (as it sometimes is for the more desperate TOEFLers).

      3) Yes, I should probably be grateful that the confusion is minimized by our speaking a language with such a bare-bones kinship repertoire, not even distinguishing maternal and paternal grandparents as the Scandinavians do, much less the different kinds of uncle/aunt (a distinction which is, I think, quite important in matrilocal cultures where your mother’s brother can be a more important relative than your father).
      As for the metaphoric use of such terms, I noticed (you would know better than I) that the terms of address in Vietnamese all seem to be kinship terms like “grandmother” or “little brother” to be used depending on the age, closeness, and social status of the addressee. But now we’re getting into social deixis, which embraces the fascinating field of different words for “you,” imprecision as a measure of politeness…well, it’ll have to wait for another post.

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