Causality and Subjectivity as cognitive principles of discourse representation
09 / 2006 - 08 / 2011
Causal relations between discourse segments can be expressed by connectives like because and so. What does it mean when speakers use one of two similar connectives rather than the other? How do language users process causal relations? And how do children acquire these textual 'building stones'? These are important, essentially unanswered questions about discourse, a key component of human communication. This program studies human cognition by investigating the mechanisms underlying discourse coherence. Starting from the challenging idea of a direct link between linguistic categorization and cognition, causal connectives are investigated. Recently established (text-)linguistic insights suggest Causality and Subjectivity are salient categorizing principles. The central hypothesis is that, together, these principles account for causal coherence and connective use, and play a pivotal role in explaining cognitive complexity in discourse. This hypothesis is tested in three subprojects, investigating: (i) connectives in spoken and written discourse in Dutch, German and English (ii) the acquisition of connectives and (iii) on-line discourse processing. Causality is considered a universal principle, which is systematically encoded in language. The way Subjectivity - distinguishing between causality residing in the world or in the speaker's mind 'cuts up' the causal lexicon, is expected to vary across languages and (spoken versus written) modalities. Causality and Subjectivity are hypothesized to determine the complexity of causal relations and connectives. For instance, causal relations are considered more complex than additive relations. This inherent complexity should account for connective acquisition rather than parental input does and discourse processing rather than schematic expectations do. Using the innovative multi-disciplinary methodology of 'converging evidence', the program integrates (sub)disciplines that have hardly been related: (text-)linguistics, analysis of spoken and written corpora, language acquisition and discourse processing. Results are likely to clarify previously unsolved issues in language use, which implies a significant contribution to a Cognitive Theory of Discourse Representation.