Abstract minds

Project: Establishing new reference in discourse

This project investigates by means of EEG (at Humlab, Lund University) how the brain processes referential relations in language. We investigate whether referential connections are established in a direct or stepwise procedure during the comprehension of discourses.

Project information

Project manager
Fredrik Heinat, Linnaeus University
Other project members
Eva Klingvall, Lund University
Participating organizations
Linnaeus University, Lund University
Helge Ax:son Johnsons stiftelse
1 July 2020 – 30 June 2021
Psycholinguistics, Linguistics, English, Swedish (Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Department of Languages)

More about the project

When investigating discourse-related aspects of processing, quantifying expressions, such as many, few, some, have been identified as a very fruitful area to focus on. A subgroup of quantifying expressions, natural numbers, are particularly suitable for studies on the processing of discourse-given vs. discourse-new referents (Musolino, 2009; Kaan et al., 2007). From an EEG perspective numbers are ideal since they are short and easy to process visually/auditorily. In the sentences in (2) below, we can see how the interpretation in terms of given-ness vs new-ness changes when we substitute one number for another.

  • (2) a. Fewer than twenty pots were in the greenhouse and fifteen had a chipped saucer, it seems
  • (2) b. Fewer than ten pots were in the greenhouse and fifteen had a chipped saucer, it seems.

In (2a), a set of 'pots in the greenhouse' is constructed, containing twenty members. In the clause that follows, something is said about fifteen of the twenty pots just mentioned (they 'had a chipped saucer'). The subject, fifteen, thus refers to an entity already introduced. In (2b), in contrast, the set of 'pots in the greenhouse' contains less than ten members. Since the sentence following it mentions a set with fifteen members, it is not enough to consider the initial set but a new set has to be formed. In this case, the new set refers to a discourse-new referent. By measuring the EEG-signal at fifteen and seems we expect to be able to determine whether establishing new referents is a direct process (happening already at the word fifteen) or a later process (completed at the word seem).