From their point of view: The article category as a hierarchically structured referent tracking system

Dagmar Divjak*, Laurence Romain, Petar Milin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Full-fledged grammatical article systems as attested in Germanic and Romance languages are rather uncommon from a typological perspective. The frequency with which articles occur in these languages, together with the difficulty encountered in detecting them and the lack of a water-tight account of article use, make article errors one of the most frequent errors in language produced by L2 learners whose L1 does not feature an article system of similar complexity, all the while appearing unproblematic for L1 users. We present a conceptually and methodologically interdisciplinary approach to the grammatical category of articles in English and combine a usage-based, cognitive linguistic account of the function and use of articles that respects its discourse-based nature with a computational exploration of the challenges the system poses from the perspective of learning. Running a statistical classifier on a large sample of spoken and written discourse chunks extracted from the BNC and annotated for the five main determinants of article use reveals that Hearer Knowledge is the driver of a hierarchical system. Once Hearer Knowledge is acknowledged as the motivating principle of the category, article use becomes eminently predictable and restrictions are in line with the forms from which the articles have developed historically, with the and a acting as category defaults and zero acting as default override. Simulations with a computational model anchored in the psychology of learning shed light on whether and how human cognition would handle the proposed relations detected in the data. We find that different articles have different learnability profiles that, again, are in line with their historical development: while the can be learned from one strong indicator, the relationships for the zero article are less exclusive. On the basis of these findings, we argue that the article category appears as a referent tracking system that grammaticalizes the principles of “audience design”: it forces a speaker to track and mark reference from the vantage point of the memory of the hearer, thereby reducing the processing effort required from the hearer. This particular mindset inverses the typologically dominant situation in which this information is not explicitly marked by the speaker but implicitly retrieved from context by the hearer.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date9 Jun 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Jun 2023


  • articles
  • classification
  • English
  • learnability
  • referent tracking system simulation


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