Saturday, October 08, 2011

Seasonal deixis

Yesterday, I mentioned on Google+ that my grade-five son has a piece about horsehair worms coming out in the spring issue of Kiddo Magazine. Peter van der Woude commented, "Great" and then went on to wonder, "why do Americans always seem to insist on using the seasons to inform about schedules & releases?" continuing, "I've never heard anyone in Australia announce something as `released this Autumn' or `the Summer edition' unless it's related to sports - where the season is obvious."

It's a point I have occasionally been reminded of, but which I always seem to ethnocentrically forget: seasons are relative, just the way this, yesterday, you, and to the left are. Even though spring means the same thing to most of the English-speaking population, there are still a large number of people living south of the equator for whom spring comes around September or so.

These kinds of words and expressions are said to be deictic. Wikipedia has a good definition of deixis: "In linguistics, deixis refers to the phenomenon wherein understanding the meaning of certain words and phrases in an utterance requires contextual information. Words are deictic if their semantic meaning is fixed but their denotational meaning varies depending on time and/or place."

But is it true that the Australians don't do this outside of sporting situations? I searched The Australian for instances of in the spring to see. The first hit I turned up certainly suggested that Australians are at least more sensitive to the issue.
The new iCloud, due in the Australian spring, is to be free and, among other things, it will do all the synching between your devices automatically. (link)
The Google books corpus has multiple hits for in the Australian spring, but none for in the Canadian Spring.

As was claimed, there are indeed sporting uses, but I'm not sure the season is always so obvious, especially when it's an international match.
It was possible to feel some sympathy for the hordes from India who had paid for expensive airfares and even more expensive accommodation in Barbados in the spring of 2007. (link)
Which spring is this? Barbados is in the northern hemisphere, but does it even have a spring? So does that mean we are to understand this as the Australian spring? These things can get even more complicated:
A handful of areas in Afghanistan have been stamped "green", signalling that they have been earmarked for a handover in the spring. (link)
This one is an article from the Times of London reprinted in The Australian and referring to Afghanistan. It's likely the northern hemisphere spring referenced here, but that's just a guess.

And, of course, there are examples like the one Peter complains about and claims never to have seen in Australia:
  • The national awards for outstanding buildings will be announced in the spring. (link)
  • "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" was published in a special Science Wars edition in the spring-summer edition of Social Text in 1996. (link)
  • Only 54 per cent indicated they expect gains in US equity markets over the next year, compared to 66 per cent in the survey conducted last spring. (link)
  • Hudson began dating Bellamy in the spring of 2010 and she announced her pregnancy in January. (link)
So, perhaps we all need occasional reminders that seasons are deictic. Thanks, Peter!

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