Thu Oct 20, 2022
|Meaning Sciences Club
Judith Degen (Stanford University, Linguistics)
On the role of gradient referential utility and incrementality in cross-linguistic referring expression production
Reference is one of the most basic and prevalent functions of language use. A long-standing puzzle for theories of language production is that speakers routinely include redundant modifiers – i.e., modifiers that aren’t strictly speaking necessary for the purpose of uniquely establishing reference – in referring expressions. This redundancy has been argued to violate the tenets of rational language use, thus posing a challenge for standard pragmatic and psycholinguistic theories that treat language production as an efficient tradeoff between maximizing utterance informativeness and minimizing utterance cost.
I show that maintaining the standard theory (as formalized within the Rational Speech Act framework), but relaxing the semantics of words from Boolean to continuous values, yields a number of well-documented patterns in English whereby redundancy is modulated by linguistic (e.g., adjective type) and extra-linguistic (e.g., visual scene complexity) contextual factors. However, this model does not capture a key result: that redundancy appears to be less likely in languages with post-nominal modifiers, like Spanish. I describe the cross-linguistic predictions of an incrementalized version of the model and present data from production studies on a small but diverse set of languages that calls into question the relative importance of language-specific incremental pressures over the inherent contextual utility of mentioning certain properties. This work highlights the need for more explicit formalizations of notions of efficiency in language production; and for further cross-linguistic investigations of reference.