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Information structure research presented at recent workshop

(December 2012) Linguists with a special interest in the study of information structure recently met in the Netherlands for a workshop at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. The theme of the second annual workshop organized by the Syntax, Typology and Information Structure Group was “Categories of Information Structure across Languages.” An SIL linguist was among those who presented research at the workshop.

The order and method in which information is presented in different languages is of interest to many descriptive and theoretical linguists. (For example, how does a listener keep track of the participants in a narrative or identify which information is meant to be understood as most important?) Researchers differ on whether some features related to information structure may actually be linguistic universals—found in all languages. Whether or not particular structures are common across languages, it’s clear that the act of communication requires that speakers organize information in some way that can be understood by listeners.

At the workshop, SIL linguist Erwin Komen and colleague Dr. Bettelou Los of Radboud University, Nijmegen, presented a paper entitled “Information state categories based on the pentaset.” The paper describes findings from a study that Komen and Los have conducted as part of Komen’s PhD research, with contributions from Professor Ans van Kemenade; the three work together in the Language and Transition Stages group of Radboud’s English Language Department. In the study they presented, Komen and Los examine the referential categories of a clause’s constituents (sentences are analyzed in their discourse context, such as a story that is being told).

Komen and Los hypothesize that referential categories can be grouped into a set of five members, termed the “pentaset:”

Using software developed by Komen, the group is tagging words and phrases in collections of historical texts with the pentaset categories. Since the combination of grammatical, antecedent and pentaset information allows deriving other existing sets and seems to allow determining “higher order” information structure notions (such as the focus domain), Komen and Los posit the pentaset as being a basic and universal ingredient of language, although more research is needed to validate such a claim.

Other presentations at the workshop included research on various aspects of information structure across languages as well as several which explored specific languages or language families, including Korean, German, Dutch, Basque, the Finno-Ugric (Uralic) languages and signed languages.

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