Rational Encoding and Decoding of Referring Expressions

Project C3

C3 investigates information-theoretic explanations of encoding and decoding behaviour, with an emphasis on the mechanisms that underlie the linearization of referring expressions. Rational theories of communication assume that interlocutors optimize successful transmission of information by reasoning about their communicative partner, suggesting that the production and comprehension systems may be intertwined in order to enable speakers to be better understood, and to allow listeners to reason about the speaker’s intentions. In this project, we aim to investigate this interdependence of production and comprehension. Firstly, our experimental investigations seek to establish the extent to which rational theories explain linearization preferences across multiple referring expressions, by investigating whether the “given before new” maxim of information structure can be viewed as an instance of the “expected before unexpected” preference following from UID. Secondly, we examine whether there is evidence for lexically specific prediction effects in comprehension, as would be expected under the prediction-by-production hypothesis put forward by Pickering and Gambi (2018). Lastly, we examine which rational encoding strategies—e.g. UID, Maximal Informativity, and Information Status—best explain speaker behaviour with regard to linearization of multiple referential expressions in situated language use. Together, these studies examine how information in flux obtains when early encoding choices dynamically modulate the information density of the signal that follows. Our findings will directly inform the development of an integrated computational model of expectation-based comprehension and production processes, with the aim of explicitly characterizing how these mechanisms are combined to support the kind of reasoning about listener/speaker behaviour that is assumed by current rational accounts.

Keywords: comprehension, production, encoding, linear order, syntactic variation, surprisal, event-related potentials, eye-tracking