linguistic processes underlie understanding sentences and anaphoric reference?
Cognitive Psychology meets the Lexicon of Linguistics:
The cognitive processes of understanding sentences with anaphoric references
According to the essay, "The return of "visiting relatives": pragmatic effects in sentence processing," by the linguists W. Farrar and A. Kawamoto, the term "visiting relatives is boring" is an excellent example of inherent structural ambiguities in any language, though in this case, specifically the English language. (Farrar & Kawamoto, 1993) In other words, when a listener hears this common phrase, perhaps around the holidays, it is uncertain if the speaker is referring to the activity of visiting the speaker's relations or to the actual boring nature of the relations themselves.
One could argue, of course, that either way, this is irrelevant, as the two ideas are interrelated -- when boring people visit one's home, life often feels quite boring, just as visiting boring people can itself be quite boring! However, to determine the precise semantic meaning in a sequential fashion, one must understand the context the speaker is speaking from. Is it that dear Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob are boring people, and the speaker finds these unwelcome visiting relatives to be unpleasant intruders in his or her happy home? Or is the speaker dreading suffering through a visit to these two individuals' home for a dreary Thanksgiving of dry talk and dry turkey?
The meaning of the speaker can only come clear through context, of course, and the interactive rather than the sequential understanding of language. The reasons that such inherent confusions become built into the language are little understood, although it is agreed upon that listeners grow to understand and accept these confusions through cognitive phenomenon such as the blurring of sounds in their understanding of listeners, rather than insisting upon perfect diction at all times. For the most part individuals through such 'mishearing' are able to engage in more, rather than less effective communication. Rather than insisting upon what 'visiting relatives' means on a literal, linguistic level, by paying attention to context, one can understand the speaker's meaning more accurately.
To understand the need for such unintentional but constant 'mishearing' and to understand the actual meaning of different speakers, one must first identify the elements and processes required for general language understanding. The first component of any language is that of a lexicon, or an agreed-upon group or vocabulary of works. Every language, indeed every profession or hobby, has its own lexicon. The lexicon may be formally coded into dictionary format or simply exist as an unspoken understanding between members of a profession, land, or shared framework of language and regional speech and slang. Or the lexicon may exist as a combination of all these things.
However, the component in the grammar that a 'lexicon' technically occupies, absent of syntactical references, is a group of words in list form, out of a concrete context. A lexicon may attempt to catalogue pronunciation, meaning, morphological properties, and syntactic properties of words, and some idiosyncratic or slang uses of words. However, such 'word listings' are only one component of language information. A mere listing of words cannot take into consideration these words' relation to the outer lying linguistic framework. For a language to truly exist, it must also have a semantic and syntactical framework. Semantics is the process by which syntactic structures are associated with their meaning in a particular context.
The location of words in a lexicon or dictionary as opposed to language and linguistic representation also highlights the difference between denotative and connotative forms of representation. What a word means or connotes in context is often different than the denotative associations that the word itself has out of context -- in fact, devoid of context, the word may be completely meaningless.
The process of semantics also allows for an abstract (formal) structure of language in which meanings can be represented. In other words, one can speak of 'truth' without having a physical representation of 'truth' or even providing a specific example of truth, because of the construction of English as a formal language with multiple levels of semantic meaning.
More importantly, from a practical point-of-view, one can know what sort of 'visiting relative' one is speaking in the essay discussed above, because of the location of the sentence within a particular conversation -- one knows if the speaker is visiting his or her relatives or being visited by them, depending on one's previous, personal knowledge of the specific situation. Similarly, one can glean by previous context if a bat was in a young woman's attic in the sense that she used to play baseball, or if a small furry winged creature has taken up residence in her rafters.
To take the notion of semantics and syntax further, however, one must stress how notions of linguistic meaning also require one to understand relational meanings not just within a sentence or a situation, but the language as a whole. To understand that someone doesn't have a cat, one must understand what is a cat within the land and language in which one is speaking. Again, language is interactive rather than linear in such understandings. Furthermore, in terms of the lexicon of linguistics, linguists themselves have developed a term for an element of language that can only be understood contextually, namely that of an anaphor; an element of speech depends for its reference on the reference of another element.
In the theory of syntax, for instance, there are always syntactic constraints on anaphoric reference such as agreement of number, person, or sex, the importance of order or the contextual use of reflexive pronouns. The statement that John said he wanted to leave does not mean the same thing as John said that they wanted to leave the party. The anaphors in question are he and they. The use of these anaphors completely change the meaning of the sentence, even though the order is the same.
The statement that 'they said John wanted to leave, does not have the same meaning either, illustrating the anaphoric frame of reference in terms of number as well as singularity and plurality. The statement that John saw her in the mirror also has an entirely different meaning than John saw himself in the mirror, simply because of the contextual nature of language and the gender implication of the anaphor, namely the particular pronoun being used, as well as the order of nouns and pronouns in the other sentences and the use of reflexive pronouns in all three examples. Nonanaphoric references, to make a contrasting example, might involve the use of proper nouns, which contain in and of themselves frames of reference. For instance, 'John said that the softball team wanted to leave the party.' In this example, the reference to the specifics already exists in the knowledge base of the listeners.
In their text Cognitive Psychology, Eysenck & Keane ask what sequence of events are cognitively required for an individual to understand language. Again, anaphors refer to sequential aspects of language patterning. When listening, isteners take in a stream of speech through the physical act of hearing with their ears, and accomplish the task of listening by dividing the stream of sound up into component parts, known as phonems. (Eysenck & Keane, Chapter 14) It has been noted that quite often individual listeners will 'fill in' missing phonemes if missing in a speaker's actual text. This filling in takes place on a cognitive rather than an auditory or spoken level, making the statement by a speaker coherent with their linguistic expectations in a seamless fashion between the two speakers. This phenomenon is known as the phoneme restoration effect. There is also the commonly cited "McGurk effect," which suggests similarly that listeners "fill in" or interpret sounds based upon pre-existing linguistic knowledge and assumptions. (Eysenck & Keane, Chapter 14)
These effects can be seen in understanding how anaphors often function, despite a speaker's grammatical organization. For instance, we understand who is doing the visiting in the situation of the "visiting relatives" based upon context, rather than the order of what is actually said. In terms of a misstatement, for instance if John is said to be looking at 'him' in the mirror, and it is unclear of John is looking at himself or his friend, usually the listener's knowledge of John and the previous descriptions of the scene given by the speaker, as well as the context of the comment on an emotional and physical level, will allow the same knowledge and models of processing responsible for selecting the antecedents to which anaphors are taken to refer to take over, and for the listener to understand the speaker's given meaning.
But what, if John is said to be looking at 'her' in the mirror, and the speaker was really referring to 'him?' Here, again, the linguistic blurring and the mental assumption in context must take over again. The speaker may very well hear 'him,' because of what he or she…