The Spectator Bias in the Linguistic Descriptions of Information Structure

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Abstract

This article argues that the linguistic descriptions of information structure are characterized by a bias. The argument takes a starting point in the observation that these descriptions are insufficiently informative and misleading when applied to language use embedded in practical activities, e.g. hunting, baking bread, playing handball or landing an airliner. The purpose of the article is to explain these inadequacies and lay the groundwork for new informative and accurate descriptions.

The claim is that the observed inadequacies can be explained by a bias. This bias can be described on the basis of a distinction between two ways of looking at language: language use as an independent activity and language use as embedded in an activity. The former perspective implies that language use is separated from the activity that the speaker/writer refers to and can be analyzed as an independent activity with its own purposes, functions and structures. The latter implies that language use forms a part of an activity and must be analyzed as a contribution to the performance of the activity. Each of these views is associated with a set of assumptions about language and language use. The claim is, then, that the linguistic descriptions of information structure is based on the former perspective and that the assumptions associated with this view impose a bias in the analysis of natural language information structure. This bias is called the spectator bias.

The article identifies common information structural features in the linguistic descriptions of information structure and illustrates a systematic discrepancy between the established descriptions of information structure and activity-embedded language use. It considers the written language bias as an explanation, outlines a supplementary bias that can explain the discrepancies, and suggests an alternative to the spectator bias, namely that language use is embedded in extra-communicative courses of actions and that the information structure must be analyzed in relation to such courses of actions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalLanguage Sciences
Volume76
Issue numbernov
Number of pages20
ISSN0388-0001
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019

Keywords

  • Information structure
  • Linguistic theory
  • Biases

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