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Review of Discourse Anaphora: A Cognitive-Functional Approach
AUTHOR: Ming-Ming Pu TITLE: Discourse Anaphora: A Cognitive-Functional Approach SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Theoretical Linguistics 47 PUBLISHER: LINCOM GmbH YEAR: 2011
Meixia Li, School of English Language, Literature and Culture, Beijing International Studies University, Beijing, China
This book suits such readers as university teachers, graduate students and researchers who are interested in the study of anaphora, cross-linguistic studies, discourse analysis, and language teaching and learning. In this book, the author first proposes a cognitive-functional model to account for how the construction of mental structures determines the use and resolution of discourse anaphora. Afterwards he does a comparative quantitative study of both English and Chinese empirical and text data, which demonstrates that on the one hand the occurrence and distribution of discourse anaphora is more universal in nature than language-specific, and on the other hand that the proposed model is adequate, feasible and workable.
This monograph contains 7 chapters. In the introductory chapter, the author first situates discourse anaphora in a new perspective. Discourse anaphora is not held as a static product or entity linked to its linguistic antecedent in a text but as a manifestation of cognitive processes of memory and attention, and of building discourse coherence and maintaining local and global topics, along with the tacit cooperation between speakers and hearers. Against this background this chapter aims to construct a cognitive-functional model to account for the use and resolution of discourse anaphora. Then, the scope of the book, the categorization of anaphora and the overview of the book are given sequentially. This introduction sets the anchoring point, establishing the structure of the book and providing readers with contextual information so that they have the necessary knowledge about the present research topic.
Drawing on prior research in diverse yet related fields such as psychology, neuroscience and linguistics, the second chapter discusses the role that memory and attention mechanisms play in information processing, followed by exploration of how memory and attention mechanisms constrain language production and comprehension in general, and reference tracking in discourse in particular. After the theoretical discussion, the author states that discourse processing is a collaborative process, in which the speaker makes an effort to facilitate the hearer’s access to the referent with ease so that the hearer can build his /her mental representation of discourse congruent with his/her own by the usage of anaphora. This chapter serves as the theoretical foundation for the following study.
The third chapter presents a cognitive-functional model of discourse anaphora. It first argues that discourse anaphora is a hearer-oriented process, during which the speaker constantly assesses the activation status of referents in the hearer’s mind and chooses specific anaphora to code the referents accordingly. Then, the author discusses how the two important factors -- topicality and thematic coherence -- modulate the activation level and attention activity of the referent during discourse processing, making the referent more or less accessible at the moment of utterance. Next, the author proposes a cognitive-functional model which explicates the relationship among cognitive activities, mental structure building, and discourse anaphora. Finally, the author has a discussion of some of the most important functional and cognitive theories on anaphora, such as the Activation Model, the Referential Distance Model, Centering Theory, Accessibility Theory, and the Attention Model, critically pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each, and stating that his proposed model differs significantly from others.
By presenting two experimental studies, Chapter Four is devoted to the validity of the proposed cognitive-functional model of discourse anaphora. The first experiment examines the connection between cognitive mechanisms and discourse anaphora, specifically, the effect of major disruptions in the flow of information on the use of anaphora. The second experiment focuses on the effect of minor thematic discontinuities in the cognitive accessibility of referents and hence the use of anaphora. In the two experiments, the stimulus material is from a children’s picture storybook entitled “Here Comes Alex Pumpernickel”. The participants are native speakers of both English and Chinese.. The tasks for each participant include both on-line and recall; and participants are asked to produce oral and written narratives. An analysis of the data is presented, further indicating that discourse anaphora is governed by cognitive mechanisms of memory and attention, with the modulation of thematic coherence and topicality.
Chapter Five investigates whether the proposed model can account for discourse anaphora in naturally occurring, character-rich and plot-complex written narrative texts, and whether the major anaphoric patterns obtained from the two experiments can be found in complex written narrative texts. The study lends further support to the statement made in Chapter Three, that is, the cognitive constraints of memory and attention underlying reference tracking can also apply to naturally occurring and structurally complex written narratives, and the analyses of both contemporary English and Chinese short stories demonstrate that similar distributional patterns of anaphora are used between literary writers of the short stories and student writers in the experimental studies.
Based on the evidence from the experimental studies and text analysis, Chapter Six argues that the use of zero anaphora, rather than being constrained by language-specific characteristics, is also governed by the same cognitive-functional principle underlying anaphora tracking. With respect to the fact that that zero anaphora occurs about twice as frequently in Chinese as it does in English discourse, the author states that the difference is mainly due to the definition and classification of ‘clause’, and the determining factor that influences the use of zero anaphora in Chinese and English discourse is the sustained attentional effort on a referent that is maintained in a micro-unit of maximum thematic coherence. This chapter also deals with three types of maximum thematic continuity: topic continuity, action/event continuity, and condensed continuity, which, the author argues, are responsible not only for the occurrence and distribution of zero anaphora but also for the asymmetry between zero subject and zero object in both languages. In this chapter, Topic Chain, “in which the topic is almost invariably coded by zero subject, although zero objects occur occasionally” (161), and which is the characteristic feature of Chinese, is also taken up and a quite different conclusion is drawn. The author finds that topic chain can also be used in English discourse. The chapter further explores thematic discontinuity that inhibits the use of zero anaphora. In the end, a fill-in-the-blanks study was used “to test the psychological reality of thematic continuity and discontinuity in discourse processing, and to determine whether such continuity and discontinuity govern the use of covert versus overt referential forms” (207). The study reveals that native speakers of both English and Chinese follow the same general rules of anaphor use put forward by the author’s CF model, and their choice of anaphora is in most cases consistent with what the authors of narratives do. The last chapter sums up the major findings of the study in detail, and presents the necessity for future study.
The study of anaphora can be classified into two sorts: one is the study of intrasentential anaphora (specifically, binding relations); the other is the study of intersentential anaphora (or discourse anaphora). “The former attracted attention in the 1960s and is one of the central topics in generative syntax and semantics, but also in current typological studies. The latter has been studied extensively since the early 1990s within computational linguistics, discourse representation theory, and functional approaches such as centering theory” (Reuland et al. 2011). The present study belongs to the latter. This book makes an important and innovative contribution to the study of anaphora, specifically discourse anaphora. Traditionally anaphora is defined as involving a “Linguistic element which refers back to another linguistic element (⇒antecedent) in the coreferential relationship, i.e. the reference of an anaphora can only be ascertained by interpreting its antecedent” (Bussmann 2000:23), yet in this book, anaphora is regarded as “a process where references are managed in a developing discourse to maintain discourse topics and achieve coherence” (4). This definition emphasizes the function of anaphora in a dynamic perspective, which thus enlarges the scope of anaphora. Then, rather than assuming that the processing of discourse anaphora is a static textual, individual, linear, and isolated process, this study holds that it is a cognitive, interactional, hierarchical and contextual process, which delineates the universality of the principles governing the use and interpretation of anaphora. Rather than fixing his attention on anaphora and text information, the author establishes the relationship among the cognitive mechanism of memory and attention, and discourse coherence and anaphora, which unveils the true reason that leads to the use and resolution of discourse anaphora. Additionally, rather than simply generalizing the research on the use of anaphora, this study makes a deep investigation into what exactly contributes to the easy accessibility of referents. And, rather than merely relying upon qualitative English data, this research adopts both English and Chinese empirical and text data and analyzes them quantitatively. Finally this study sheds new light on the issue of topic chain, with which zero anaphora is closely connected. It has been traditionally assumed that topic chain is a device unique to Chinese, because it is universally held that Chinese is a topic-oriented language. By contrast, the present study argues that topic chain can often be employed in English discourse when topicality and coherence are guaranteed, and so that the phenomenon of topic chain is more language-general. This argument may subvert our long-held, deep-rooted thinking that topic chain is only found in in Chinese. All in all, this study offers us an extensive overview of the previous theories of the study of anaphora, as well as a well-established theoretical framework for the interpretation of discourse anaphora. It also presents some new thought-provoking ideas concerned with the processing of discourse anaphora and opens up more possibilities for further research.
However, in this monograph, there are a few points which need reconsidering. In Chapter Three, the author first puts forward his model and then gives a critical assessment of the previous theories of the study of anaphora. However, in the reviewer’s opinion, the critical literature review should come before the proposal of a new model which is to be tested by experiments. In this way this chapter would be more coherent internally and externally. Another point is concerned with the number of participants in the experiments, which included 20 native speakers of English and 20 native speakers of Chinese. The samples are comparatively small, which, to a certain extent, might influence the credibility of the research result. The third point is about the data for the text analysis in Chapter Five. This chapter presents the following criteria for choosing stories: length, point of view, role of character, and referential environment. Yet, another feature, generic structure, should be included as one of the criteria. “Genre represents the system of staged goal-oriented social processes through which social subjects in a given culture live their lives” (Christie & Martin 1997: 13). So, what generic structure expresses is the fundamental nature of a genre (i.e. narrative). Nevertheless, this book is definitely well-written and is highly recommended.
Bussmann, Hadumod. 2000. Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.
Christie, F. & J. R. Martin. 1997. Genre and institutions: Social processes in the workplace and school. London: Cassell.
Reuland, Eric, Martin Everaert & Anna Volkova. 2011. Anaphora. Oxford Bibliographies Online. http://oxfordbibliographiesonline.com/view/document/obo-9780199772810/obo-9780199772810-0050.xml
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Meixia Li is a Professor in Linguistics in the School of English Language,
Literature and Culture, Beijing International Studies University, China.
Her research interests lie in discourse studies, functional linguistics,
cognitive linguistics, and language teaching and learning. Currently she is
working on the contrastive study on the use of formulaic language between
English and Chinese.