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Departmental Colloquium: Paula Rubio Fernandez, University of Oslo

The CEU Campus
Wednesday, October 5, 2016, 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm

Saying too much can be efficient: A reference production/comprehension study


Paula Rubio-Fernández (University of Oslo/ MIT)

Redundancy provides a puzzle for pragmatics. In a situation where there is only one star among various other stickers: why would I ask you for ‘the blue star’? In line with Grice’s Maxim of Quantity, the general assumption in pragmatic models of reference production (e.g., Sedivy, 2003, 2004; Engelhardt et al., 2006, 2011) is that minimal referential expressions that determine unique reference are optimal. In this paper I challenge this assumption and argue that, at least in perceptually-grounded reference, establishing what counts as an optimal referential expression needs to take into account perceptual factors. Thus, if the star is the only blue sticker in the display, referring to it as ‘the blue star’ may be optimal – or at least not as redundant as if all the stickers were blue.


Following work on visual attention (Wolfe, 1994) and incremental language processing (Spivey et al., 2001), I argue that when a speaker refers to a specific entity in their physical environment, their interlocutor embarks on a ‘language guided search’. An optimal referential expression should therefore maximize the efficiency of the interlocutor’s visual search for the referent.


I investigated this view in a reference production/comprehension study, in which I tested the following twofold hypothesis: speakers are trying to be efficient when they produce redundant adjectives, and redundant adjectives are in turn effective for the hearer. I tested the first hypothesis in three language production experiments, and the second one in a language comprehension experiment using eye tracking with the same materials that were used in the language production work.


The results of the study supported my predictions, and I therefore conclude that in perceptually-grounded reference, redundancy responds to the pressure for efficiency in the hearer’s visual search (see also Piantadosi et al., 2011; Mahowald et al., 2012; Kurumada & Jaeger, 2013). That means that redundancy can be efficient, and even optimal, if it facilitates the identification of the referent in the physical environment.