Playing with deixis

by , under thinking

Consider these:

1. Jim said that his father was a hero.
2. Christopher told Jim that his father was a hero.
3. Leonard said that Christopher told Jim that his father was a hero.

So whose father was a hero? In (1) evidently Jim’s father, at least according to Jim.

1a. Jim: My father was a hero.

But it’s not as clear in (2):

2a. Christopher: You know, Jim, my father was a hero.
2b. Christopher: You know, Jim, your father was a hero.

And even worse in (3):

3a. Leonard: Christopher told Jim that his father was a hero.
3b. Leonard: Christopher told Jim that his father was a hero.
3c. Leonard: Christopher told Jim that my father was a hero.

Wait! Aren’t 3a and 3b the same? No, they’re not: they’re Leonard telling us about the 2a and 2b situations, respectively. Usually, we’ll know from context (and I’ve taken this from Star Trek so most people will have the context) whose father it is, but it may be confusing.

I don’t know whether to call this ‘2c’ or ‘3d’ or whatever, but anyway:

Christopher: You know, Jim, Leonard’s father was a hero.

Some languages have different possessive pronouns to disambiguate exactly this. Latin, for one: in (3) Leonard’s father would be suus, Christopher’s father would be eius, and Jim’s father would be illius.

It’s not only with possessives that it works this way:

4. Mary was happy because she’d passed the exam.
5. Lisa said that Mary was happy because she’d passed the exam.
6. Jane told us that Lisa said that Mary was happy because she’d passed the exam.

Unpacking this:

4a. Q: Why are you happy, Mary? A: Because I’ve passed the exam.

Pretty straightforward. Let’s go on to Lisa.

5a. Lisa: Mary is happy because she’s passed the exam.
5b. Lisa: Mary is happy because I’ve passed the exam.

Still straightforward. But adding another layer:

6a. Jane: Lisa says that Mary is happy because she’s passed the exam.
6b. Jane: Lisa says that Mary is happy because she’s passed the exam.
6c. Jane: Lisa says that Mary is happy because I’ve passed the exam.

In (6a) Mary has passed the exam, in (6b) Lisa, and in (6c) Jane (which is obvious). We need direct speech to disambiguate:

6a-1. Jane: Lisa, why is Mary happy? Lisa: Because she’s passed the exam.
6b-1. Jane: Lisa, why is Mary happy? Lisa: Because I’ve passed the exam.
6c-1. Jane: Lisa, why is Mary happy? Lisa: Because you’ve passed the exam.

(Note: this example was “Mary was sad because she didn’t have any friends” at first, but working out all the permutations made me sad.)

Half the ambiguity goes away when not everybody needs the same pronouns:

7. Anne said that she really liked her house.
8. Anne told John that she really liked her house.
9. Anne told John that she really liked his house.

This can only mean:

7a. Anne: I really like my house!
8a. Anne: I really like my house, John!
9a. Anne: I really like your house, John!

Well, except if there’s a lot of context around it in which Susan and Peter also have houses and Anne is telling John about those. But then language-example people usually live in a vacuum– except when they’re Jim, Christopher and Leonard, in which case they actually live in vacuum most of the time.

 

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