Preliminary Discussion Forum for the 3rd MIC Sorbonne workshop (Paris, Nov. 15-16, 2012)

New Standards for Language Studies
Nouveaux Standards pour les Sciences du Langage

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#1 02/04/12 16:35

Kecskes I
Moderator

Dynamics of Salience

Dynamism of Salience

Definition:

As a semiotic notion, salience refers to the relative importance or prominence of signs. The relative salience of a particular sign when considered in the context of others helps an individual to quickly rank large amounts of information by importance and thus give attention to that which is most important. We tend to overestimate the causal role (salience) of information we have available to us both perceptually and linguistically.

Claim:

I argue that salience plays as important a role in production as it does in comprehension. The dynamism of salience is created by the interplay of inherent salience (old-before-new) and emergent situational salience (focused-first) and their bidirectional influence in which inherent salience is dominated by linguistic salience, while emergent situational salience is usually governed by perceptual salience.

Background:

Linguistic salience describes the accessibility of entities in a speaker’s or hearer’s memory and how this accessibility affects the production and interpretation of language. Several theories of linguistic salience have been developed to explain how the salience of entities affects the form of referring expressions, as in the Givenness Hierarchy (Chafe 1976; Givón 1992; Gundel et al., 1993), or how it affects the local coherence of discourse, as in Centering Theory (Grosz and Sidner 1986; Grosz et al., 1995) and in the Meta-informative Centering by Wlodarczyk and Wlodarczyk (1999, 2008) or in Giora’s Graded Salience Hypothesis (1997, 2003) just to mention a few. I also include Jaszczolt’s (2005) concepts of “primary meaning” and “pragmatic default” in this list, because the latter also deals with salience, albeit from a somewhat different perspective.
    Perceptual salience refers to information that is the focus of people’s attention. Perceptual salience is about how the state or quality of information stands out relative to neighboring items. This paper argues that there is a bidirectional influence between linguistic salience and perceptual salience. This claim differs from the traditional view. There are two approaches to the issue of how language interacts with perceptual processing. According to the traditional view, language is “merely the formal and expressive medium that is [used] to describe mental representations” (Li and Gleitman, 2002: 290). Language is just a tool for reporting perceptual or conceptual representations, rather than shaping and modulating them (Bloom and Keil 2001; Gleitman and Papafragou 2005; Pinker 1994). According to this view, linguistic-perceptual interactions are seen in terms of recoding perceptual experiences into verbal ones (e.g., Dessalegn and Landau 2008; Munnich and Landau 2003). Lupyan and Spivey’s work (2010) represents an opposing view, which argues that language dynamically modulates visual processing. Although they focused only on one aspect of this interaction—the degree to which processing spoken labels facilitates the visual processing of the named items—I agree with their claim and speculate further that there is a bidirectional influence between linguistic salience and perceptual salience, which will be discussed later.
The socio-cognitive approach (Kecskes 2008, 2010) distinguishes three types of salience: inherent salience, collective salience, and emergent situational salience. The notion of inherent salience is close to what Prat-Sala and Branigan (2000) called “inherent accessibility” and Pattabhiraman (1993) referred to as “canonical salience.” Inherent salience is characterized as a natural preference built into the general conceptual and linguistic knowledge of the speaker; it has developed as a result of prior experience with lexical items, and changes both diachronically and synchronically. Inherent salience is affected by the two other types of salience. Collective salience is shared with the other members of the speech community, and changes diachronically. Emergent situational salience is similar to “derived accessibility” of Prat-Sala and Branigan (2000) and instantial salience of Pattabhiraman (1993). It changes synchronically, and refers to the salience of specific objects and linguistic elements in the context of language production. Situational salience may accrue through such determinants as vividness, speaker motivation, and recency of mention. In an actual situational context, inherent salience is affected and shaped both by collective and situational salience. The following (source: British sitcom) example serves to show the role of salience both in production and comprehension:

(1)     Jill:      I met with someone today.
    Jane:   Good for you.
    Jill:      He is a police officer.
    Jane:   Are you in trouble?
    Jill:      Oh, no….

Jill met someone who was a policeman. Conforming with our society’s collective salience, the concept of “policeman” is identified with some kind of trouble. However, this understanding of the concept is privatized in Jill’s case and acquires a positive overtone, as the result of her positive (maybe even romantic) encounter with the policeman. Jane did not have this experience, so she processed the word in accordance with its collective salience, as privatized by her in the given situation. What the speaker meant differed from what the hearer inferred from the same utterance. The difference is the result of the concept’s different privatization, based on prior experience.
    Emergent situational salience refers to the salience of situational constraints that can derive from factors such as obviousness, vivideness, recency of mention, and others. The cashier’s “How are you doing today?” question in a supermarket requires only a short “Fine, thank you.” The salience of the situation makes the function of the expression obvious. However, actual situational salience can be overridden by both collective salience and inherent salience. In the following example, situational salience is overridden by a collective salience, individualized similarly by hearer-readers.

(2)     (Sign on the door of a department store)
        “Girls wanted for different positions.”

Not even the actual situational context and environment can subdue the sexual connotation of the sentence. As Giora (2003) claimed, both salient information and contextual knowledge run in parallel, and salient, but contextually inappropriate information may not be discarded. A similar example comes from one of Robin Williams’ films (The Survivors), where the hero says, “I had to sleep with the dogs. Platonically, of course….” The speaker thinks that the sexual connotation of “sleep with” is so strong that a clarification is necessary.

Competition between inherent and emergent situational salience

From a theoretical perspective, it is also difficult to reconcile the attended first (instantial salience, situational salience) with the given-before-new (canonical salience, inherent salience) hypothesis. Bock, Irwin, and Davidson (2004) provided a comprehensive account of this theoretical controversy. They claimed that “the focused first” and “the old first” proposals are contradictory because the information that attracts the focus of attention is typically the new elements of the scene, whereas givenness promotes the already established background. The lexical-semantic factors (e.g., old-before-new) and the perceptual factors (e.g., focused/attended first) should, therefore, produce competing effects. However, this is not necessarily so in the socio-cognitive paradigm. Prior experience also plays some role in attention-getting; i.e., it may determine what the focus of attention becomes. Inherent salience (old-before-new) and emergent situational salience (focused-first) are intertwined and affect each other continuously in the communicative process. The strongest communicative effect is reached when there is no competition between the two, like in the advertisement below.

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Not only actual situational salience but also perceptual inherent salience direct (especially males’) attention to the girl in the advertisement. However, this is just perceptual salience. Linguistic salience is another matter. The text “Wherever your destination we deliver” has nothing to do with the girl in the picture. The note “girl not included” aims to decrease the powerful perceptual saliency, and solve the discrepancy between perceptual salience and linguistic salience.
    The interplay of inherent salience (old-before-new) and emergent situational salience (focused-first) and their bidirectional influence is motivated by the fact that inherent salience is dominated by linguistic salience, while emergent situational salience is usually governed by perceptual salience. The following example (4) demonstrates how the two different types of salience operate.

(4) Allen and Sherry (of sitcom Two and a Half Men) are sitting in a restaurant. Allan’s  right eye is covered with a bandage so he does not see Sherry very well.
        Allen:     - You know, Sherry, I would really like to see more of you.
        Sherry:   - Maybe, we should wait and see how the night goes.
        Allen:      - Oh, no. I mean I have only got one good eye. Can we change places?
        Sherry:   - Sure.

The conversation demonstrates that Sherry completely misunderstood Allan’s utterance “… I would really like to see more of you.” This may be due to the fact that she relied exclusively on linguistic salience and ignored perceptual salience in processing the utterance. Some studies referred to the fact that inherent linguistic salience seems to override perceptual salience in most cases. Osgood and Bock’s study (1977) also showed that the effects of inherent salience consistently trumped those that would need to gain salience from speaker motivation. Lupyan and Spivey (2010) also came to a somewhat similar conclusion when they argued that language dynamically modulates visual processing.

Last edited by Kecskes I (13/06/12 10:49)

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