Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jennifer Spenader: "Variation in Demonstrative choice in Swedish" (2004)

This really thoughtful and interesting paper by Jennifer Spenader tries find out when Swedish speakers prefer references of the form det här huset ("this here house") over reference of the form detta hus ("this house").

She sums up her findings in the maxim "avoid marking that which can be determined from the context" (p. 246). More specifically, this means that the compound demonstrative is inappropriate for a recently mentioned referents. It is also less appropriate for animate referents, allegedly because they are more "accessible" and may thus be recovered from context.

In order to test what kind of referents her subjects preferred in different situations, she asked them to fill in forms of the following type (cf. p. 249):
Many research studies show an increase in diabetes or "sugar sickness" among women working in the government sector.
Passive work combined with lack of physical activity leads to an unhealthy lifestyle.
The research also shows that the social part of the women's work often involves chatting over an unhealthy snack.
A. ____________ doesn't don't occur among women in the private sector.
C. ____________ate during certain periods great amounts of candy.
The two last sentences are alternatives that suggest either a more abstract (A) or a more concrete (C) referent for the empty slot. The subjects were only presented with one of them.

Using logistic regression, Spenader found that the most predictive factor for the choice of form was sentence recency: The more time that had passed since a referent was mentioned last, the more likely the subject was to use a a compound form (den här ...). The dependency between the discourse distance and choice of form can be seen in this chart:

The second-most predictive factor was animacy/concreteness. This variable could take the three values Animate, Inanimate-abstract, and Inanimate-concrete.

An Alternative (Stochastic) Model
In section 5 of the paper, Spenader describes an alternative model she has devised within the paradigm of stochastic optimality theory. I didn't know what this involved, but I must say that I find it quite odd.

The idea in stochastic optimality theory is not, as one might think, one of putting weights on the different constraints so that the parsing of an input becomes a matter of maximization of a real function. No, the idea is rather to let the order of the different conflicting constraints be stochastic. It thus introduces noise into the application of the rules in order to reproduce rather than explain empirical variations.

In any case, Spenader sets up a system with seven constraints and trains a system to selecting the best ordering. This turns out—again—to select recency as the most decisive factor, followed by animacy. She tests the trained grammar not by a statistical method but by generating a single random observation and comparing that to the empirical data (using chi-square tests).

This seems like a methodologically bad choice. One could instead pick a test statistic and find the probability that a new data set generated from the trained model would be more extreme than the empirically observed data points. If need be, this could be done with Monte Carlo methods, but I'm not sure that it would even be necessary.

Sociolinguistic Explanations
I find it extremely odd that Spenader doesn't even mention the most obviously relevant dimension of explanation, namely that of high vs. low style.

There is something distinctly informal about constructions of the form det här huset, even though slightly less in Swedish than in the (African-American) English this here house. The closest we get to this is the initial discussion of written vs. spoken language (p. 229).

This formal/informal dimension should be seen in conjunction with, for instance, the social aversion against pointing directly at someone, especially if you're not talking directly to them. This tendency may in some cases have a mirror image in the Japanese tendency to suppress certain nominal phrases and find it coarse or impolite to fail to do so.

A striking English example of this tendency is John McCain's infamous reference to Barack Obama as "that one" during a presidential debate in 2008. He also, by the way, pointed at Obama (without looking at him) while making the reference. The results was that he emitted an air of superiority, as if Obama was an inanimate thing.

No comments :

Post a Comment