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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Language universals rely on social cognition: Computational models of the use of this and that to redirect the receiver’s attention


Demonstratives---simple referential devices like this and that---are linguistic universals, but their meaning varies cross-linguistically. In languages like English and Italian, demonstratives are thought to encode the referent's distance from the producer (e.g., that one means ``the one far away from me"), while in others, like Portuguese and Spanish, they encode relative distance from both producer and receiver (e.g., aquel means ``the one far away from both of us"). Here we propose that demonstratives are also sensitive to the receiver's focus of attention, hence requiring a deeper form of social cognition than previously thought. We provide initial empirical and computational evidence for this idea, suggesting that producers use demonstratives to redirect the receiver's attention towards the intended referent, rather than only to indicate its physical distance.

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