2018 ALS Annual Conference will feature keynote addresses from renowned international speakers. 

Prof. Dr. Petra Schumacher, University of Cologne

Referential functions and the construction of prominence profiles

Referential expressions are essential ingredients for information processing. Speakers use particular referential forms to convey different discourse functions and thus shape the 'prominence profile' that organizes referents in discourse representation. The prominence profile, i.e. the ranking of the referential candidates, feeds into expectations for upcoming discourse referents and interacts with the choice of referential forms (e.g., less informative referential forms are more likely to refer to more prominent referents). The prominence profile can further be changed as discourse unfolds, i.e. certain referential expressions such as demonstratives can raise the prominence status of their referents. The talk discusses various cues that contribute to the dynamic construction of prominence profiles and presents evidence for the different referential functions from behavioral and event-related potential studies. 

Prof. Dr. Walter Bisang, University of Mainz

Manifestations of complexity in grammar and discourse

Linguistic discussions on complexity come in various shades. Some models are based on cognitive costs and difficulty of acquisition, others look at the properties of the form by which grammatical distinctions are expressed and connected, yet another group of linguists focus on recursion and merge and, finally, complexity can be measured in terms of algorithmic information theory.

What is common to the above approaches is their concentration on linguistic form. In my presentation, I argue that form is only one side of complexity. If one looks at complexity from the perspective of the two competing motivations of explicitness vs. economy the form side can be seen as the result of explicitness, while there is a second side which is based on economy and the pragmatic inference of grammatical information which is available in the grammar of individual languages. The former type of complexity will be called overt complexity, the latter economy-based type will be called hidden complexity (Bisang 2009, 2014, 2015). Hidden complexity manifests itself in the omission of contextually inferable grammatical marking and the multifunctionality of individual grammatical markers.

More concretely, I show the functioning of hidden complexity and the relevance of discourse with examples from East and mainland Southeast Asian languages (EMSEA). Since there is a large number of examples, I limit myself to phenomena like (i) radical pro-drop, (ii) the tense-aspect marker -le in Chinese, (iii) numeral classifiers as markers of definiteness and indefiniteness and (iv) the specifics of grammaticalization and multifunctionality. As a result, it will turn out that hidden complexity often comes with (i) a different division of labour between grammar and the lexicon (also cf. Xing 2015) and (ii) that even highly grammaticalized markers still express important discourse functions. If hidden complexity is dominant in a large number of grammatical domains this also affects some basic properties of grammaticalization and the results it can produce.

If the ability of perspective taking and the formation of a Theory of Mind are seen as crucial for the evolution of language, pragmatic inference is a very important factor which should also have its effects on how grammar works. In such a view, its properties must be seen as a combination of pragmatic inference (economy) and form (explicitness). As a consequence, it is to be expected that the encoding of information in terms of omission and multifunctionality is subject to cross-linguistic variation in individual domains of the grammar of individual languages. In extreme cases with many such instances, this may induce simple-looking surface structures which can only be adequately understood from the background of hidden complexity.


Bisang, W. 2015. Hidden complexity—the neglected side of complexity and its consequences. Linguistics Vanguard 1.1, 177–187.

Bisang, W. 2014. Bisang, W. On the strength of morphological paradigms—a historical account of radical pro-drop. In: Robbeets, M. and Bisang, W. (eds.), Paradigm Change in Historical Reconstruction: The Transeurasian Languages and Beyond, 23–60. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Bisang, W. 2009. On the evolution of complexity — sometimes less is more in East and mainland Southeast Asia. In: Sampson, Geoffrey, David Gil and Peter Trudgill (eds.), Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable, 34–49. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Xing, J. 2015. A comparative study of semantic change in grammaticalization and lexicalization in Chinese and Germanic languages. Studies in Language 39.3, 594–634.

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