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Volume 54, Issue 6


Grammatical and pragmatic factors in the interpretation of Japanese null and overt pronouns

Mieko Ueno
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093–0515, USA
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/ Andrew Kehler
Published Online: 2016-11-08 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling-2016-0027


Pronoun interpretation in English has been demonstrated to be sensitive to an interaction between grammatical and pragmatically driven factors. This study investigated the interpretation of pronouns in Japanese, which has both null and overt forms. Thirty-two native speakers of Japanese per experiment participated in passage completion studies with transfer-of-possession contexts (Experiment 1) or implicit causality contexts (Experiment 2), varying prompt type, aspect, and topic/nominative-marking of the previous subject. Two judges annotated reference and coherence relations in the completed passages. Japanese overt pronouns were revealed to pattern closely with English overt pronouns in their sensitivity to pragmatic factors, whereas null pronouns showed a mixed resilience to pragmatic factors. Topic-marking only showed marginal effects on reference in limited contexts. Despite different degrees of sensitivity to pragmatic factors, Japanese null and overt pronouns were both mostly subject-biased, casting doubt on the existence of a division of labor between the two forms. There was also an intrinsic link between reference and coherence relations throughout the experiments. We discuss the overall results in terms of language specificity and universality, the latter of which includes interactions between grammatical and pragmatic factors and the importance of discourse coherence in the interpretation of various pronouns across languages.

Keywords: Japanese pronoun interpretation; discourse processing; crosslinguistic language processing


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About the article

Published Online: 2016-11-08

Published in Print: 2016-11-01

This research was supported by grant number 3R01HD022614-22S1 from the NICHD and a grant from the UCSD Academic Senate.

Citation Information: Linguistics, Volume 54, Issue 6, Pages 1165–1221, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling-2016-0027.

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