Verbal Energy

It depends on what the meaning of 'here' is

A look at 'indexicals' – words whose meanings shift with the user's perspective.

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Where you stand, the proverb goes, depends on where you sit.

It's a political proverb, and if this were a political column I might be tempted to blow off steam about the way Congress keeps passing short-term continuing resolutions, as if the apparatus of the federal government were like the heaters in some of the English bed-and-breakfasts I visited in my impecunious youth, where you would drop in another 10 pence every so often for a bit more heat.

But this is not a political column; it's a language column. And so the "where you sit" proverb is on my mind because I've just learned a new term for what we might call point-of-view words: indexicals.

Recommended: 10 modern proverbs (from the last 100 years)

Johnson, The Economist's language blog, named after the dictionarymaker Samuel Johnson, caught my eye recently with a comment on having seen, at an Iran Air office in London, a sign that advertised flights to "Tehran and domestic destinations." Of course what was meant was "Tehran and other Iranian cities." And why didn't it say that? "Probably," Johnson surmised, "because the sign was written by Iranians, for whom Isfahan is a domestic destination, at least mentally."

Indexicals – from the Latin index, forefinger or pointer finger – are words that depend on the speaker's frame of reference. Pronouns are indexicals – You and I mean different things according to who is speaking. Time words – yesterday, today, and tomorrow, whose meanings all shift over time, are indexicals. So are here and there, and for extra credit, yonder. In times past, "I" was "here," and "you" were "there," and "they" were over "yonder." Yonder has drifted off into the realm of regional archaism, but a number of other languages seem to be hanging on to their equivalent terms – the proximal, medial, and distal, to use the linguists' terminology.

A little poking around in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that this is a whole new subbranch of philosophy:

"Philosophers have several reasons for being interested in indexicals. First, they wish to describe their meanings and fit them into a more general theory of meaning. Second, they wish to understand the logic of arguments containing indexicals, such as Descartes's Cogito. Third, they think that reflection on indexicals may give them some insight into such matters as the nature of belief, self-knowledge, first-person perspective, and consciousness."

Once upon a time I was at a community meeting at which local activists were grilling city officials about the possible expansion into the neighborhood of a certain well-known institution of higher learning nearby. A representative of the institution was there sitting quietly off to the side, content to let city officials take the heat.

Finally, though, the crowd insisted the institutional representative actually respond to their questions about his employer's plans. I remember the way he framed his comments: something along the lines of "those of us here at the university."

He was obviously used to not having to name his university. But it also seemed obvious he was not used to venturing outside the ivy-covered walls, either. Mentally, he was still on campus, just as the Iran Air signmaker in London was mentally still in Iran.

This little audio snippet has been lodged in memory for several years now, and I finally have a term to describe it: an indexical reference problem.

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