The quest for a referent: A crosslinguistic look at reference resolution

Elsi Miia Katariina Kaiser, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation investigates how informationally underspecified referential forms are interpreted in different languages. How do we locate the intended referent of forms like pronouns that, on their own, carry very little information? Most existing work assumes that referential forms can be mapped onto a accessibility/salience scale and that the referential form with which a particular referent is realized (e.g. pronoun, demonstrative, full NP) corresponds to that referent's level of salience. Thus, if referential forms encode instructions telling the hearer how to retrieve the intended referent, then the instructions they carry are formulated in terms of salience. In this dissertation, I present evidence indicating that (i) factors other than referential form can be used to encode retrieval instructions, and (ii) the retrieval instructions carried by referential forms are not restricted to statements about the level of salience of the antecedent. To investigate the effects of factors other than referential form, I used Finnish, language that lacks articles and in which the linear position of NPs carries information about their referential properties. Many Finnish linguists have noted that whether a full NP is interpreted as referring to a discourse-new referent or an already-mentioned entity is correlated with whether it is pre- or postverbal. I conducted psycholinguistic experiments (self-paced reading and eye-tracking) which reveal that Finnish listeners are very sensitive to these word order-based retrieval instructions during on-line sentence processing and even use them to make predictions about upcoming referents. To explore the retrieval instructions that different referential forms carry, I looked at Finnish, Estonian and Dutch, focusing on the referential properties of pronouns and demonstratives. Using corpus data and psycholinguistic experiments (sentence completion studies and eye-tracking), I show that the retrieval instructions carried by various forms are not limited to information about salience; instead, different forms tap into different levels of representation, such as the syntactic level and the discourse level. In addition, I argue that contrastive uses of Dutch and Estonian long pronouns show that certain anaphors provide new information about their referents, and are not merely a reflection of certain characteristics that the referent is already known to possess.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Cognitive therapy

Recommended Citation

Kaiser, Elsi Miia Katariina, "The quest for a referent: A crosslinguistic look at reference resolution" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3095896.