indexicality (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The words you and here are indexical expressions. (Getty Images)


In pragmatics (and other branches of linguistics and philosophy), indexicality encompasses the features of a language that refer directly to the circumstances or context in which an utterance takes place.

"All language has the capacity for indexical function," notes Kate T. Anderson, "but some expressions and communicative events suggest more indexicality than do others" (Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, 2008).

An indexical expression (such as today, that, here, utterance, and you) is a word or phrase that is associated with different meanings (or referents) on different occasions. In conversation, interpretation of indexical expressions may in part depend on a variety of paralinguistic and non-linguistic features, such as hand gestures and the shared experiences of the participants.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Among philosophers and linguists, the term indexicality typically is used to distinguish those classes of expressions, like this and that, here and now, I and you, whose meaning is conditional on the situation of their use, from those such as, for example, noun phrases that refer to a class of objects, whose meaning is claimed to be specifiable in objective, or context-free terms. But in an important sense, namely a communicative one, the significance of a linguistic expression is always contingent on the circumstances of its use. In this sense, deictic expressions, place and time adverbs, and pronouns are just particularly clear illustrations of a general fact about situated language."
    (Lucy A. Suchman, "What Is Human-Machine Interaction?" Cognition, Computing, and Cooperation, ed. by Scott P. Robertson, Wayne Zachary, and John B. Black. Ablex, 1990)

  • Direct Indexicality, Dude
    "Direct indexicality is a meaning relationship that holds directly between language and the stance, act, activity, or identity indexed. . . .

    "An illustration of this process can be seen in the American-English address term dude (Kiesling, 2004). Dude is used most frequently by young white men, and indexes a stance of casual solidarity: a friendly, but crucially not intimate, relationship with the addressee. This stance of casual solidarity is a stance habitually taken more by young white American men than other identity groups. Dude thus indirectly indexes young, white masculinity as well.

    "Such descriptions of indexicality are abstract, however, and do not take into account the actual context of speaking, such as the speech event and the identities of the speakers determined through other perceptual modes, such as vision."
    (S. Kiesling, "Identity in Sociocultural Anthropology and Language." Concise Encyclopedia of Pragmatics, ed. by J.L. Mey. Elsevier, 2009)
  • Indexical Expressions
    - "The success of a deictic act of reference to a given book by means of an indexical expression like This book, for instance, requires the presence of the book within the visual field shared by the interlocutors, just like its gestural indication. But indexical expressions are not necessarily put to deictic use. Definite noun phrases and third person pronouns allow for anaphoric and cataphoric use. During anaphoric indication, the expression remains the same, but the field undergoes a change. The expression does not typically refer to an individual physically given in the perceptual field, but necessarily refers to an entity previously or subsequently named within the same discourse or text: I'm reading a paper on cataphora. I find it (this paper) interesting."
    (Michele Prandi, The Building Blocks of Meaning: Ideas for a Philosophical Grammar. John Benjamins, 2004)

    - "The most frequently noted indexicals are personal pronouns ('I,' 'we,' 'you,' etc.), demonstratives ('this,' 'that'), deictics ('here,' 'there,' 'now'), and tense and other forms of time positioning ('smiles,' 'smiled,' 'will smile'). Our understanding of both spoken utterances and written texts must be anchored in the material world. To understand a sentence such as, 'Would you take this over there,' we need a provisional location for myself (the speaker—a meaning for here), for 'you' (my addressee), for the object ('this'), and for the goal intended ('there')."
    (Ronald Scollon and Suzanne B. K. Scollon, Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. Routledge, 2003)