Roman Jakobson

Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb

in On Language: Roman Jakobson, p. 386-392. Edited by L. Waugh and M. Monville-Burston, L. Waugh and M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Russian Language Project1990 [1957].


According to Pierce, a symbol (for example the Englich word red) is associated with the represented object by a conventional rule, while an index (such as the act of pointing) is in existential relation with the object it represents. Shifters combine both functions and belong therefore to the class of INDEXICAL SYMBOLS. ... For this alleged multiplicity of contextual meanings, shifters in contradistinction to symbols were treated as mere indices .... Every shifter, however, possesses its own general meanings. Thus I means the addresser (and you the addressee) of the message to which it belongs. (p. 388)

It is because shifters have a general meaning, that is because they are, also, arbitrary to the function of indexing the speaker (which can be done in any number of ways as is evident when comparing languages), that, within any particular language, shifters can also be used to make further arbitrary distinctions--particularly distinctions within what becomes a short hand to certain properties of the relationships between the types of persons thereby constituted, and again which particular individuals will have to struggle. This was developed in the long tradition of work on the use of shifters to mark class differences. I developed one aspect of this in my papers on the rhetorical power of the use of pronouns in American high schools ( 1978, 1982, 1983), and most specifically in my
"The Interpretation of Pronominal Paradigms: Speech Situation, Pragmatic Meaning and Cultural Structure" (1984)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006