Complexity and Decoding

Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at
Thu Mar 17 07:58:44 UTC 2011

Dear colleagues,
maybe that it is useful to divide the current discussion into two topics 
(as illustrated in Tom's posting). Here, I want to take up just the 
general issue of complexity. John's remarks are a very helpful point to 
start with:
> (...) but it's pretty tough to explain definiteness to a native speaker of
> Japanese or Russian, even if their knowledge of a language with 
> articles is
> generally pretty good. I've spent enough time trying to do this to be 
> skeptical
> of claims that these people really do know the concept of definiteness.
Well, I've made the same experience when working with speakers of say 
Slovak or of some languages of the Eastern Caucasus. Nevertheless, I 
hesitate subscribing to your final conclusion: It is intimately related 
to the question whether the givenness of mental concepts is dependent 
from their linguistic symbolization and thus touches upon the problem of 
linguistic relativity. Personally, I take the stance that mental 
concepts cannot be learned as such by assimilating corresponding 
linguistic symbols. Rather, I assume that during L1-acquisition, given 
mental (dynamic) concepts become by and by elaborated, specified, 
metaphorized and 'networked' due to the individual entrenchment of 
conventionalized sets of linguistic symbols. Some of these conceptual 
domains may evolve into seemingly 'new' concepts, others remain rather 
basic. The individual's reference towards its own knowledge state 
(memory)  maybe one of those basic features that an individual cannot 
escape from (else, human cognition wouldn't work the way it works). So, 
in case an individual activates a referential concept, (s)he will 
probably always co-activate some kind of reference towards 'givenness' 
or 'newness' or 'typicity' (that is some kind of conceptual 
(in)definiteness). The only question is whether the individual has at 
his/her disposal practices to refer to this type of conceptual 
(in)definiteness in terms of linguistic symbols. This goes together with 
the question whether a language community has conventionalized this way 
of reference or not. Naturally, the more a mental concept has become 
symbolized via language, the more an individual may become conscious of 
this concept. But this does not mean that it is inexistent without.

Also, I'm not fully convinced by the empirical scenario you have 
referred to. Normally, native speakers (not trained in linguistic 
categorization e.g. via L2-acquisition, schooling etc.) do not have any 
pronounced, conscious and 'active' knowledge of such categories as 
linguistic (in)definiteness (just ask a linguistically unbiased, 
rudimentarily schooled person in the street whether (s)he knows what is 
'dative' is, or what the meaning is of (say) German -t in 'sag-t' 
(says).Probably, you won't get an answer. But this does not mean that 
the speaker does not 'know' the corresponding semantics in terms of 
linguistic practice). If you try to explain a linguistic category to a 
native speaker who has already experienced a linguistic training (be it 
in terms of L2-acquisition or else), (s)he will logically start from 
his/her categorial knowledge and try to find it in the system under 
question. But then, the candidate is no longer that type of 'naive' 
speaker we normally need to disclose linguistic knowledge.

Also, the point you have made again has to do with the opposition 
'producer/perceiver': The producer of a sentence like Russian /c(elovek 
uvidel z(ens(c(inu v ulice/ (person sees woman in street) will surely 
know for him/herself, whether (s)he refers to 'a person' or 'the/that 
person', to 'a woman' or 'the/that woman', to 'a street' or 'the/that 
street'. The problem lies on the side of the perceiver. (S)he will have 
to refer to other symbols, context, and situational features to decide 
whether to parse 'a' or 'the' (there are many such indirect 
symbolizations and clues in every chain of utterances articulated in 
which language so ever, I guess), confer Tom's posting:
> So, when a hearer needs to decide whether "horse" is a first 
> introduction (indef, presentative) or accessible/predictable (def), 
> s/he cannot rely on morphological clues & make automated decisions, 
> but has to spend much more time & mental effort on contextual scanning 
> & analysis.
Nevertheless, I doubt whether the perceiver has to spend more time and 
mental effort on scanning etc. A perceiver is normally confronted with a 
sequence of utterances that (idealiter) has its proper starting point 
(being sometimes replaced by situational features). Hence, when a 
speaker starts talking about a horse the perceiver memorizes (at least 
in short term memory) the 'first occurrence' of 'horse' indexing it 
automatically by 'indefiniteness' (or so). The next mentioning of the 
'horse' automatically activates the indexed version of the horse 
changing the index to 'definite' or so. Hence, there is a blend of 
'referential entity' with 'type/time of memory activation' that 
necessarily and automatically produces a feature of conceptual 
(in)definiteness/typicity etc.

In a sense, language specific, conventionalized and fine-grained 
strategies of applying linguistic symbols for (in)definiteness/typicity 
etc. 'overspecify' the conceptual layer of (in)definiteness/typicity 
etc. Such strategies are not necessary, but part of the 
conventionalization of linguistic practices that organize chains of 
memory appeal. Perhaps, complexity can be related to this aspect of 
overspecification: Linguistic structures and symbolic sets that 
overspecify a given conceptual domain (by exceeding a certain a certain 
threshold value) may be termed 'more complex' than those that are more 
close to the 'prototypical' specification of this domain....

Bes wishes,




*Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulze *


Institut fu"r Allgemeine & Typologische Sprachwissenschaft

Dept. II / F 13

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universita"t Mu"nchen

Ludwigstra?e 25

D-80539 Mu"nchen

Tel.: 0049-(0)89-2180-2486 (Secretary)

0049-(0)89-2180-5343 (Office)

Fax:  0049-(0)89-2180-5345

Email: W.Schulze at 
<mailto:W.Schulze at>/// Wolfgang.Schulze at 
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