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Review of  Reference in Discourse

Reviewer: Olga Charlotte Lovick
Book Title: Reference in Discourse
Book Author: Andrej A. Kibrik
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 23.2532

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AUTHOR: Andrej A. Kibrik
TITLE: Reference in Discourse
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

Olga Lovick, Interdisciplinary Studies, First Nations University of Canada

In this extensive monograph, Kibrik tackles discourse reference from the
typological as well as from the cognitive perspective. His aim is to understand
the ‘basic referential choice’ between full referential devices (i.e. noun
phrases) and reduced referential devices (i.e. free pronouns, bound pronouns,
and zero), looking at their cross-linguistic variation and at the cognitive
foundations of reference.

Part I is introductory. In Chapter 1, Kibrik lays out definitions of referent,
reference, referring/referential expression, referential devices. Most
crucially, he defines reference as a discourse-oriented phenomenon, not a
syntactic one (p. 10). He formulates his goal to unite discourse analysis,
typology, and cognitive linguistics in order to arrive at a “realistic and
comprehensive theory of human language” (p. 22). Chapter 2, Kibrik defines his
goal as the investigation of the basic referential choice between full and
reduced referential devices, and limits the study to anaphoric specific definite
reference of non-locutor pronouns (p. 34). He briefly summarizes the proposed
Cognitive Multi-Factorial approach and closes with a distinction between
referential devices (whose primary function is to refer) and referential aids
(elements with a different primary function which can be used to resolve
referential conflict).

Part II contains five typological chapters on referential devices. Throughout,
Kibrik discusses particular patterns and offers a typological perspective by
drawing on studies in the ''World Atlas of Language Structures'' (Haspelmath et
al. 2005, 2008). Chapter 3 introduces major types of reduced referential
devices, viz. bound and free pronouns and zeroes, and shows that languages are
not always internally consistent in their referential choice. Kibrik also
introduces the important distinction between tenacious pronouns (which co-occur
with co-referential NPs) and alternating pronouns (which do not co-occur with
co-referential NPs). The last portion of this chapter is concerned with zero
reference, which appears to be independent of activation (but see Givón 1983 for
another view), syntactic position or semantic role. Chapter 4 is dedicated to an
in-depth discussion of pronouns and related devices (demonstratives,
classifiers, and social status nouns). He shows that the latter are particularly
common in languages with zero reference, suggesting that the lack of pronouns
leads to drafting of other categories into referential service. Kibrik also
discusses pronouns with double reference and pronouns marked for clausal
categories such as TMA or polarity. He proposes a three-way typology with
respect to boundness; the three parameters are the expression of 1. the lexical
meaning of the verb, 2. clausal categories, and 3. reference. The last
subsection is concerned with strong, or accented, pronouns. Chapter 5 looks at
languages that do not consistently choose the same reduced referential device.
Kibrik argues against the view (held e.g. by Givón 2001) that this choice is
always due to different levels of activation and claims instead that some
languages are sensitive to coordination, definiteness, or other factors. Chapter
6 is a detailed treatment of bound pronouns, particularly the parameter of
tenacity (the ability to occur with a co-referential NP) and its independence
from boundness. Kibrik argues against the view that bound tenacious pronouns
should be considered agreement markers and discusses in detail the Germanic
system with both verbal agreement markers and free weak pronouns. The last
subsection deals with bound zeroes. Chapter 7 focuses on the diachronic
development of bound tenacious pronouns in three language families: Athabascan,
Slavic, and Romance, showing that different branches of a language family can
undergo different developments.

Part III is dedicated to the discussion of referential aids. In Chapter 8,
Kibrik distinguishes ad hoc devices such as semantic incompatibility, from
conventional referential aids, which sort activated referents based on a
distinctive feature (p. 294). He discusses in turn absolute stable sortings
(taxonomies, noun classes), relative stable sortings (hierarchies), and broad
(4th person in Navajo, proximate/obviative systems, and inversion) and narrow
(logophoricity, topicality/subjecthood, and activation status) current sortings,
considering for each of these where they are found and the locus of expression
(on free or bound pronouns or as part of the verb stem). The chapter closes with
a classification of referential aids and introduces the locus of its expression
as a typological parameter. Chapter 9 considers the functional load of
referential aids across languages. Kibrik finds considerable cross-linguistic
variation with respect to both the number of referential aids used by a given
language, and their respective importance. He then pursues the question of
whether the avoidance of referential conflict is the primary function of
conventional referential aids. Two case studies from Pulaar and Sereer, two
related Senegalese languages, show that, while the languages have comparable
noun classification systems, only Pulaar uses the system as referential aid.

Part IV presents the Cognitive Multi-Factorial approach (CMF). Chapter 10 begins
with a discussion of attention and working memory and their application to
discourse study. Kibrik summarizes the CMF: various discourse factors (e.g.
referential distance, episode boundary, a referent’s centrality to the discourse
and others) contribute to a referent’s activation. Each factor has a numerical
value; the sum of values for each factor is numerical expression of a referent’s
activation score. Three thresholds of activation can be identified: Above the
first one, only reduced referential devices are possible; between the first and
second, reduced devices are preferred; between the second and third, full NPs
are preferred; below the third, only full NPs are possible. This numerical
approach, according to Kibrik, solves the problem of circularity inherent in
many approaches to discourse reference. The CMF is applied to a written Russian
text in Chapter 11 and to a written English text in Chapter 12. In both
chapters, Kibrik discusses the impact of various activation factors in each
language. He also introduces two filters which operate independently from the
other activation factors: The “world boundary filter” and the “referential
conflict filter”. In the conclusion to Chapter 12, Kibrik observes that “[t]he
general model of referential choice is supposed to be universal but the set of
activation factors, their relative numerical weights, and thresholds for the
activation status range are language-specific” (p. 444). Chapter 13 is concerned
with the CMF’s significance for cognitive linguistics in general. Kibrik
demonstrates for instance that the sum of activation scores for all active
referents within an elementary discourse unit is rarely greater than 4, which is
also approximately the number of items that can be held in working memory. He
also considers the question of activation decay (= forgetting from working
memory) and how discourse linguistics can further contribute to cognitive
science. In Chapter 14, Kibrik points out several problems with the method
presented in Chapters 11 and 12. To address these issues, he employs an
artificial neural network, using the activation factors identified earlier as
weighted nodes. Kibrik then considers several other corpus studies with similar
results, and finally reports on the application of the CMF to Japanese, a zero
reference language.

In Part V (Chapter 15), the focus is widened to include visual aspects of
reference. Kibrik looks at the related phenomena of deixis and exophora with an
emphasis on their link to first-mention and anaphora. He then discusses
reference in Russian Sign Language and virtual pointing in Russian speech.

In the final chapter, Chapter 16, Kibrik summarizes his findings, briefly
discusses aspects of reference that were not included in this study, and offers
a preview of future research.

The book also includes an appendix for fieldworkers that may be used as a guide
to the collection structured data on reference.

The monograph’s first goal was to provide an overview over reduced referential
devices and referential aids in the world’s languages. Using discourse examples
from over 200 languages, Kibrik amply demonstrates the variety and identifies
typological parameters. He makes extensive use of the studies included in the
''World Atlas of Language Structures'' (Haspelmath et al. 2005, 2008) to identify
correlations between these parameters and to set up typologies based on them. He
also investigates the frequency of particular structures.

Throughout this study, Kibrik discusses a number of very important points that
are highlighted here. First of these is his view of reference as a discourse
phenomenon rather than a syntactic one. This is not to say that he disagrees
with the fact that constructions such as zero reference in coordination
structures in English (shown in (1a)) or the use of reflexive pronouns in the
case of coreferentiality of subject and object (shown in (1b)) have a syntactic

(1a) Jill-i went home and Ø/*she-i/*Jill-i went to bed.
(1b) Jack-i looked at himself/*him-i/*Jack-i in the mirror.

Instead, he argues, the syntactic patterns illustrated in (1) are largely
grammaticalizations of discourse patterns; syntax is thus a special case of
discourse (p. 36). This point is not only theoretically important, but it also
impacts the type of data that can be used for the study of reference. If
reference is viewed as a discourse phenomenon, then it can only be studied using
discourse data, not sentences uttered in isolation (or constructed by the
linguist). This constraint is taken very seriously by Kibrik, and much of the
data in this book is taken from natural or naturalistic discourse (wherever
constructed data is used, this is indicated in the discussion of the example).

I did however find the PRESENTATION of data in this part of the book difficult
to follow. Textual data is presented in a two-line format. The first line
contains a transcript of the data indicating morpheme breaks, the second line
contains a morpheme gloss. The free translation is given only at the end of the
example, which, due to the length of the textual examples, is frequently on the
following page. A randomly picked example of this is the second line of (5.8),
p. 173. To accommodate the email format, I do not include the original Masa
(Chadic) line. The second line of this example is glossed as shown in (2):

(2) killed-3SG.M-EMPH-GENER 1PL.INCL cook-1PL.INCL-ANT

The free translation of this line appears on the following page (p. 174): ‘Since
he has been killed, we start cooking him’. To someone with no knowledge of
Chadic languages, this gloss is not entirely predictable from the morpheme
glosses, so in order to follow the points illustrated by this example, I had to
flip from data to free translation multiple times, and I had to do this for
many, many examples. Presenting discourse data that includes morphemic analysis
is notoriously difficult because of the amount of information involved, and I
understand the rationale behind presenting the free translation of an example as
coherent text at the end of the example. However including free phrase
translations as a third line would have facilitated reading this book greatly,
and would have been worth the increased page count.

A second important point raised by Kibrik concerns the establishment of
equivalence between bound and free pronouns. He shows convincingly that not only
do bound pronouns fulfill the same functions as free pronouns in that they are
referential and case-marked, but also that the parameter of tenacity (frequently
taken as evidence for an interpretation of bound pronouns as agreement markers)
operates independently from that of boundness. This leads to interesting
typological findings, such as the fact that the ‘exotic’ pattern of bound
tenacious pronouns, as present e.g. in Abkhaz, is more common
cross-linguistically than the ‘basic’ pattern of free alternating pronouns in
the Germanic languages.

Here again I had a small concern. Kibrik (pp. 94-95) strongly argues in favor of
verb-marked case, and replaces the common terminology of ‘subject’ and ‘object’
pronouns in Athabascan, for example, consistently by the labels ‘nominative’ and
‘accusative’ pronouns (see e.g. p. 209 for a discussion of Navajo). When
discussing Russian on the other hand, he talks about ‘subject’ and ‘object’
pronouns, even though the labels ‘nominative’ and ‘accusative’ pronouns would be
perfectly accurate in this situation.

Excepting these few minor issues, I was very impressed by Parts I-III. Both the
breadth of this overview -- the assembly of discourse data from that many
languages is no mean feat, since grammatical accounts frequently do not include
a sufficient number of textual examples -- and its depth -- the organization and
analysis of such an amount of textual data is challenging and time-consuming --
are remarkable. Furthermore, much of the data stems from Kibrik’s own fieldwork
on a number of unrelated languages, which demonstrates not only an impressive
fieldwork record, but also bestows additional authority on this account. Another
interesting aspect is the inclusion of the Russian research tradition on
discourse; since much of that is produced in Russian, it is not as accessible to
many linguists as, say, the American research tradition instigated by Chafe
(1980, 1994) or Givón (1983).

Part IV, the discussion of the cognitive foundations of basic referential
choice, is more difficult to evaluate. The links between discourse linguistics
and cognition drawn in chapters 10 and 13 were very interesting, and Kibrik
reports on a number of corpus studies on referential choice in chapter 14. While
I am not a cognitive linguist, I found these chapters illuminating and clear. I
did however have some serious concerns regarding chapters 11 and 12. In these
two chapters, Kibrik presents a way to calculate the activation status for each
mention by assigning a numerical weight (positive or negative) to each
activation factor and adding them up. In order to figure out whether a
particular referential choice is obligatory or optional, Kibrik gives altered
variations of the text to research participants and asks them to evaluate
whether the substitution of, e.g., a pronoun for a full NP is acceptable or not.
This experiment establishes three thresholds for referential choice. This
technique is applied to a Russian written text in chapter 11 and to an English
written text in chapter 12.

While the discussion of the methodology is for the most part very clear and
inclusive, Kibrik presents us with the weights of activation factors in Russian
on p. 411 (in chapter 11) and English on p. 436 (in chapter 12), but does not
explain how he arrived at these weights until p. 441. As a result, one has to
read the whole discussion of Russian without knowing why particular weights have
been assigned to various activation factors. I found this a tad frustrating,
since it could easily have been avoided by switching the order of chapters 11
and 12.

My second concern regards the methodological issues in the calculation of the
activation score, all of which Kibrik lists on pp. 460-461 and addresses by
developing a neural network that a) identifies those factors that don’t
significantly contribute to activation, b) is not as labor-intensive as the
assigning of numerical weights by hand, c) recognizes that there may be
non-linear dependencies between activation factors, and d) ensures all
activation scores are neatly between 0 and 1. The resulting neural network
described on pp. 461-470 seems well-designed and remarkably robust in generating
reliably the predicted (i.e. original) referential device, even after
substantial pruning. This model however raised a question: If such an advanced
technique is available, why then spend two whole chapters (about 80 pages) on a
manual, time-consuming, and problematic technique? Given that the results from
these studies have been published since the late 1990s (see chapter 11, footnote
1; chapter 12, footnote 1), it would have been possible to briefly summarize the
relevant findings, use them as input for the computer model, and then move on to
other topics.

Part V comprises only one chapter, where Kibrik includes visual evidence from
pointing and also from sign languages. Again, I am not a specialist and cannot
comment on the accuracy or innovativeness of the chapter. I was a little
surprised about the chapter’s placement; it appears to be almost an afterthought
to the book. It would have been more intuitive to me had it immediately followed
the typological chapters, since this would have supported Kibrik’s view that
“the discussion of reference in human languages would be grossly incomplete if I
totally ignored the evidence of sign languages in this book” (p. 499).

To sum up: Kibrik has clearly succeeded in providing the reader with an overview
not only over the linguistic variation and typological tendencies of reference,
but also over the different research traditions in East and West. The book is
extremely comprehensive and very clearly written. I am not sure whether parts of
it would be suitable as a “sort of a textbook” (p. 552) even at the graduate
level, since the chapters build very strongly upon each other, so that isolating
portions for students to read could be difficult. The book could rather be used
for self-study both by graduate students and others working in the field. In
particular, Kibrik succeeds in pointing out many avenues for future research: by
providing a questionnaire for fieldworkers, by identifying typological
parameters, and by demonstrating that computer modeling and corpus linguistics
both are valuable tools in the investigation of reference. In short, this book
is an invaluable and very accessible resource for those who want to read up on
discourse reference as quickly as a book of this heft permits.

Chafe, Wallace L. (ed.) 1980. The pear stories: Cognitive, cultural and
linguistic aspects of narrative production. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Chafe, Wallace L. 1994. Discourse, consciousness, and time: The flow and
displacement of conscious experience in speaking and writing. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

Givón, Talmy. 1983. Topic continuity in discourse: A quantitative
cross-linguistic study. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Givón, Talmy. 2001. Syntax: A functional-typological introduction. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins.

Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil, and Bernard Comrie. 2005. World
Atlas of Language Structures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil, and Bernard Comrie. World Atlas
of Language Structures. Max Planck Digital Library. 2008.

Olga Lovick is an Associate Professor of Linguistics and Dene Language Studies at the First Nations University of Canada. Her research interests include discourse linguistics, conversation analysis, and prosody in the Athabascan languages and beyond.

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