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Incrementality and efficiency shape pragmatics across languages

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Rubio-Fernández, P., & Jara-Ettinger, J. (2020). Incrementality and efficiency shape pragmatics across languages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117, 13399-13404. doi:10.1073/pnas.1922067117.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000D-C216-F
To correctly interpret a message, people must attend to the context in which it was produced. Here we investigate how this process, known as pragmatic reasoning, is guided by two universal forces in human communication: incrementality and efficiency, with speakers of all languages interpreting language incrementally and making the most efficient use of the incoming information. Crucially, however, the interplay between these two forces results in speakers of different languages having different pragmatic information available at each point in processing, including inferences about speaker intentions. In particular, the position of adjectives relative to nouns (e.g., “black lamp” vs. “lamp black”) makes visual context information available in reverse orders. In an eye-tracking study comparing four unrelated languages that have been understudied with regard to language processing (Catalan, Hindi, Hungarian, and Wolof), we show that speakers of languages with an adjective–noun order integrate context by first identifying properties (e.g., color, material, or size), whereas speakers of languages with a noun–adjective order integrate context by first identifying kinds (e.g., lamps or chairs). Most notably, this difference allows listeners of adjective–noun descriptions to infer the speaker’s intention when using an adjective (e.g., “the black…” as implying “not the blue one”) and anticipate the target referent, whereas listeners of noun–adjective descriptions are subject to temporary ambiguity when deriving the same interpretation. We conclude that incrementality and efficiency guide pragmatic reasoning across languages, with different word orders having different pragmatic affordances.