Tag Archives: function words

Function Words — How do they Make You Feel?

If you recall, I summarized an article about function word use & personality in a recent blog entry. Since then I’ve thought of a few more things to add to this topic. The first is a paper taking a look at the affective use of demonstrative this & second is a paper which spends some time talking about the impact of brain damage on the acquisition & production of function words in children. I suppose you may first want to take a look at Pronouns & Personality again, but I’ll rehash the gist for you below.

  • In order to participate in conversations over half full of function words (including pronouns) which provide little content, speakers need to be acutely aware of their environment & social milieu.
  • This means that the ability to use function words is a marker for basic social skills.
  • There are individual differences in usage of function words (including pronouns).
  • These differences are associated with personality traits & psychological states.
First, almost immediately after publishing this entry, I thought of the paper I’d read a while back by Potts & Schwarz (2009) called Affective This. This paper was interesting purely by being a corpus study in experimental pragmatics, but their findings also provide compelling evidence for the association between function words & expression of shared mental states. You might have guessed this from the title of the journal article — affective suggesting emotion & this being the function word of interest.
When considering emotionally charged language, function words like this & that aren’t among the first to come to mind. Especially considering that we have words designed explicitly to convey emotion (e.g. bastard, amazing, wow, etc.). However, even before considering the Potts & Schwarz paper, we have an idea that there’s more to these little words than meets the eye. Variation across speakers & contexts does seem to have some link to personality traits & psychological states.
So Potts & Schwarz chose to focus their attention on a comparison between proximal & distal demonstratives, this & that respectively. They sought to use corpus evidence to confirm the thought that this suggests a close, shared sentiment (solidarity) whereas that conveys a contrasting emotion. The idea is that these two senses arise from the “core” spatio-temporal meaning of these demonstratives. So while this & that exist primarily to orient a referent in space & time, their meanings have been extended to express affective closeness or distance. Finally, heading a noun (commonly a proper noun) with a demonstrative seems to suggest an agreement between speakers on the evaluative claims in an utterance.
The authors summarize the following characteristics of demonstrative-heading:
a. The speaker presumes that the hearer can identify the referent of A.
b. The predication of the referent A is evaluative.
c. The evaluative predication is uncontroversial.
d. The speaker intends to evoke solidarity with the hearer.
To test these effects of demonstrative-heading, the authors turn to quantitative corpus evidence, which is a relatively new technique in experimental pragmatics as I understand it. They looked at use of affective this in hotel & product reviews & their associated “star ratings” on Tripadvisor & Amazon to determine whether or not its use was a sign of solidarity. Indeed they found a u-shaped distributional frequency of this across star ratings suggesting an emotional use. That is, this is used with less frequency in “lukewarm” 3-star reviews & in greater frequency is more “heated” 1- & 5-star reviews. They found the same u-shaped distribution with exclamatory words like wow, absolutely, & the exclamation mark.
On the other hand, they found an “anti-exclamatory” effect for demonstrative that & suggest it to have an “anti-solidarity” effect. Take a look at their sentences demonstrating this:
(15)
a. How’s that throat?
b. How’s that porkulus working out?
c. How’s that “hope” and “change” working out for you?
d. How’s that $787 billion stimulus working out?
Now this paper only examined the use of this & that (& still mostly just this), yet it it’s clear that these content-free function words can do a lot to express emotional closeness. In the case of this, function words do seem to have the ability to orient a speaker not only physically, but also in an emotional sense. Their research offers more evidence for the idea that use of function words necessitate an awareness of one’s social & environmental setting. To be able to express solidarity with a discourse partner requires an understanding of where they are at in their mind — are they likely to find your evaluative claims uncontroversial, are they familiar with your referent, etc.?
Second, & the thing that made me decide that it would be worthwhile to publish a follow-up entry, is a paper I just finished reading by Bates & Roe (2001) which summarizes literature on language development in children with unilateral brain injuries. Some of the past research they look at concludes some pretty intriguing things about the way acquisition & use of function words figures into children’s language development. Now this isn’t the impetus behind the paper, but it does spend a good amount of time addressing the issue.
In one study that they review (Bates et al., 1997), they find that children with damage to their right-hemisphere produce a disproportionately high number of function words relative to their overall vocabulary as compared with normal children. This pattern of function word use is associated with slower grammar development in later stages of language acquisition. These children tend to use frozen expressions, an example of which given by the authors is “I wan dat.”  This style of linguistic expression is called “holistic style.”
There are other children who use relatively fewer function words than is normal & instead use telegraphic utterances like “Mommy sock.” This style of linguistic expression is called “analytic style.
The authors note that the terms “holistic” & “analytic” are often attributed to the right- & left-hemispheres respectively & for this reason, one might expect that children exhibiting an overproduction of function words (“holistic style”) would be more likely to have left-hemisphere damage. We would assume that children would be relying on their intact, “holistic” right-hemisphere to acquire & produce language, but evidence runs to the contrary. The authors of the 1997 study conclude that children with damage to their right-hemisphere rely on the greater abilities of the left-hemisphere to analyze acoustic input & memory & actually end up storing & using entire frozen sound segments. This is compared to an anglophone’s use of the the word gesundheit which is understood holistically, but not structurally or semantically in the way a German would. Consequently, children with right-hemisphere damage end up using far more function words than normal children.
I’m sure there’s a lot more research on the acquisition & production of function words in children, but I did find it interesting to learn that brain damage can lead to individual differences in function word use that contradict expectations based on what we know about right- & left-hemisphere specialization in adults. Once again it goes to show that function words are more important to us than we may think. Fascinating!
Megan L. Risdal

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