Deictic verbs: Use and acquisition

Date of Completion

January 1988


Education, Language and Literature|Language, Linguistics|Language, Modern




My study focuses on deictic verbs of motion (come and go in English, and venir and aller in French). There has been no linguistic theoretical study of these verbs in English since the important, early work of Fillmore (1966, 1971). I have reexamined Fillmore's analysis of these verbs and shown it to be inadequate since it does not explain a speaker's choice of verb in all of the linguistic contexts in which they are used. My own research indicates that a small but significant change in Fillmore's characterization of the rule governing the use of these verbs is adequate to predict the deictic conditions under which a speaker will select a particular verb. I have extended my analysis to French where the results also support this modification of Fillmore's theory. The "perspective taking" theory that I propose therefore handles the facts better and also reveals the generalization concerning the use of deictic motion verbs in both English and French. It becomes possible on this theory, to look for universal, innate principles governing deictic verbs.^ This theory of perspective taking is also supported by a series of experiments in which sentences containing come and go are elicited from adult speakers in a variety of circumstances. These experiments reveal the sensitivity of adult use of these verbs to manipulations of perspective. The same experiments were conducted with children from 5;4-9;4 years of age.^ The results of my experiments indicate that children of the ages tested have the adult rule, as shown by the fact that they are just as sensitive as the adults to manipulations of perspective. However, their behavior is not completely adult-like. Like adults they will take the perspective of the significant participant in the situation (e.g. the agent); but they are less inclined than adults to modulate this tendency to conform with a hierarchy of perspective taking in terms of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person. The reason for this difference is not known, but the most likely explanation is that children, far from being egocentric, as is often claimed, tend to identify freely with other participants in a situation. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.) ^