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When you read the opening page of a novel, do you begin to visualise the setting and the characters? If so, from what perspective? How far and in what ways does your perspective depend on the language of the text? What part do personal pronouns play in your conceptual stance?

The personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, and ‘she’ function deictically. Deictic references are terms which, rather than characterise a referent, designate some kind of relation between the referent and the speaker. The meaning of a deictic term depends on who speaks the utterance, where, and when. As such, deictic reference can only be understood in relation to its context of use.

Within literary scholarship, it is often noted that first and second person pronouns (and less so, and differently, third) facilitate readerly identification with the textually inscribed position (the position of the character or narrator designated by that pronoun), and evoke a sense of readerly conceptual immersion in the fictional world of the story, contributing to the ways in which the scene is imaginatively ‘realised’ in the mind of the reader, particularly the perspective from which the scene is conceptually visualised. Cognitive poetics and cognitive narratology have employed deictic shift theory (DST), largely based on the work of Duchan, Bruder and Hewitt (1995), to attempt to offer a cognitive account of how these interpretative effects are created (see Stockwell 2002, 2009, McIntyre 2006, together with Herman 2002 and Ryan 2001). Deictic shift theory (DST) proposes that readers conceptually project to the contextual locus of the speaker of deictic cues in order to comprehend them, offering a model of how the deictic referents determining such contextual coordinates are processed by readers, and how this contributes to readers’ conceptualisation of the world of the story.

This paper explores the readerly deictic shifting involved in processing the pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’ and ‘she’ in narrative literature, seeking particularly to address the under-development of DST regarding processing of pronouns, and the lack of reliable data informing the dominant theoretical assumptions. After talking though some these theoretical assumptions and problems, I outline one pilot and one pending experiment designed to elicit real readers’ patterns of processing controlled deictic cues. It is hope that the data from these experiments can facilitate a more sophisticated and more accurate understanding of how readers process deictic cues and how deixis contributes to interpretation.

Future events

Wednesday 24h Oct. 16.15        
George Walkden, Manchester
‘Tying up syntactic loose ends: hwæt/huat-clauses in Old English and Old Saxon’
Wednesday 21st Nov. 16.15      
Victorina Gonzalez-Diaz, Liverpool
‘The language of Frances Burney and Jane Austen’
Wednesday 5th Dec. 16.15  
Stephen Pihlaja, The Open University