Shifter

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Linguistic Definition

The term "shifter" was introduced into linguistics by linguist Otto Jespersen to refer to those elements in language whose general meaning cannot be defined without reference to the message.

Roman Jakobson

For Jakobson, a shifter is a term whose meaning cannot be determined without referring to the message that is being communicated between a sender and a receiver.[1]

Examples

Personal pronouns are shifters: the word "I" designates both the speaker or sender who says "I" and the "I" contained in the message that is sent.

For example the pronouns "I" and "you", as well as words like "here" and "now", and the tenses, can only be understood by reference to the context in which they are uttered.

Roman Jakobson
General Meaning

Roman Jakobson developed the concept in an article published in 1957.

Before this article, "the peculiarity of the personal pronoun and other shifters was often believed to consist in the lack of a single, constant, general meaning."[2]

Jakobson argues that shifters do have a single general meaning; for example the personal pronoun "I" always means "the person uttering I".

This makes the shifter a "symbol."

Indexical Symbol

Jakobson concludes that shifters combine both symbolic and indexical functions and "belong therefore to the class of indexical symbols."[3]

Context-Free Grammar

In this way, Jakobson questions the possibility of a context-free grammar, since the enunciation is encoded in the statement itself.

Also, since grammar is implicated in parole, the langue / parole distinction is put into question.

Jacques Lacan

Following Jakobson, Lacan uses the term "shifter" (in English) to show the problematic and undecidable nature of the "I" (Je).

Indexical Signifier

However, while Jakobson defines the shifter as an indexical symbol, Lacan defines it as an indexical signifier.

Enunciation and Statement

This problematises the distinction between enunciation and statement.

On the one hand, as a signifier it is clearly part of the statement.

On the other hand, as an index it is clearly part of the enunciation.

Division of the Subject

This division of the "I" is not merely illustrative of the splitting of the subject; it is that split.

"Indeed, the I of the enunciation is not the same as the I of the statement, that is to say, the shifter which, in the statement, designates him."[4]

See Also

References

  1. Jakobson, Roman. 1957. "Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb," in Selected Writings, vol. II, Word and Language, The Hague: Mouton, 1971. p. 132
  2. Jakobson, Roman. 1957. "Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb," in Selected Writings, vol. II, Word and Language, The Hague: Mouton, 1971. p. 132
  3. Jakobson, Roman. 1957. "Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb," in Selected Writings, vol. II, Word and Language, The Hague: Mouton, 1971. p. 132
  4. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p.139