Salience in Sociolinguistics: A Quantitative Approach

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There is now strong evidence that this anecdotal observation about strongly unexpected events extends to subtle and highly gradient differences in unexpectedness. During language processing, words and structures that are less expected are processed more slowly e. Critically, similar costs of unexpectedness are observed for unfamiliar lectal variants when comprehenders first encounter them e. Unexpectedness—or the degree to which something is violating our expectations based on previous experience—can be measured in a number of ways.

One principled measure is referred to as surprisal Hale, ; Levy, The surprisal associated with processing a certain input e. The surprisal of a unit is defined as the logarithm of the inverse of the contextual probability of the unit:.

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If the logarithm of the inverse contextual probability is taken to base 2, surprisal measures the number of bits of information gained by processing the input over and above what was expected prior to processing the input. The surprisal of a word in linguistic context has been found to be proportional to its average reading time Frank and Bod, ; Smith and Levy, ; Linzen and Jaeger, Recent studies have further linked surprisal to implicit learning operating during language processing Fine and Jaeger, ; Jaeger and Snider, ; for a related view, see Dell and Chang, As is well-known from sociolinguistic research, talkers differ in their pronunciation, lexical, and syntactic preferences among other things, Labov, As a consequence, efficient and robust language processing requires that linguistic expectations need to flexibly adapt to these differences Fine et al.

Indeed, expectation adaptation has now been documented for speech perception Clayards et al. Adaptation to changes in the statistics of the environment should be sensitive to surprisal or more generally to expectation violation : the degree to which inputs differ from prior expectations is informative about how and how much learners need to adapt their future expectations Courville et al. Consistent with this prediction, there is evidence that the amount of expectation adaptation after processing unexpected linguistic input is proportional to that input's surprisal Fine and Jaeger, ; Arai and Mazuka, ; for related evidence from production, see Bernolet and Hartsuiker, ; Jaeger and Snider, Specifically, it is the surprisal of the variant given the prior expectations of the listener that is expected to predict initial salience.

These prior expectations, we further submit, depend not only on linguistic context e. It is in this sense that the salience of a lectal variant is inversely related to frequency—specifically to the expected relative contextual frequency of the variant 2. Specifically, initial salience should depend on which lects the individual has previously been exposed to, the frequency of the novel lectal variant in those familiar lect, and perhaps the frequency of similar variants in familiar lects see Squires, b. Next we turn to the question of how the initial salience of a variant is related to the probability that the variant will become associated with the lect, thereby acquiring social meaning.

What then happens over time, as a novel lectal variant is encountered again? Consider a novel talker producing a high surprisal variant only once, compared to producing that equally high surprisal variant repeatedly. It is in this sense that the resulting sociolinguistic salience of a variant is positively related to its actually observed relative frequency in the novel lect. Note that this is not in conflict with our previous statement.

Surprisal is predicted to cause the initial salience experienced when observing a lectal variant that was unexpected based on prior experience. High frequency in the novel lect—or specifically the cumulative effect of the surprisal experienced whenever a variant is encountered again—is predicted to increase the likelihood that the listener learns that the variant is associated with the lect this idea is closely related to the mutual information between the variant and lect.

This also predicts that lectal variants can become associated almost instantaneously with a new lect or social group if the variant is particularly unexpected as seems to be the case, Squires, a. Such ad-hoc associations should be even more likely when listeners have other reasons to believe rightly or wrongly that the producer belongs to a novel group—a prediction that, to the best of our knowledge has not been directly tested.

Viewed this way, we can think of the sociolinguistic salience that a lectal variant acquires over time as being a function of its perceived informativeness about social group membership.


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This raises an interesting question for future research. It is, however, still an open question to what extent the features that these implicit expectations are conditioned on are the same that more explicit processes, such as stereotyping refer to. One consequence of this is that the surprisal and frequency of lectal variants are likely predictors of a variant's salience. Specifically, surprisal is high when first encountering unfamiliar lectal variants.


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With further exposure, the association between the variant and the lect increases, while the surprisal evoked by the variant decreases. One advantage of this approach to salience is that it makes novel testable predictions, some of which we have derived above. A second benefit is that surprisal and frequency are quantitative measures that can—in principle provided suitable corpora —be estimated objectively from language database.

Of course, other properties of lectal variants e. However, these other contributors to salience are generally difficult to measure reliably. We thus submit that the proposal outlined here should be taken into account first , providing a baseline for a variant's expected salience.

All authors listed, have made equally substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it for publication. The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest. The reviewer DM and handling Editor declared their shared affiliation, and the handling Editor states that the process nevertheless met the standards of a fair and objective review.

The ideas expressed here benefitted from stimulating discussions with participants at the workshop and from the reviewers' comments, who went beyond the expected.

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The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the funding agencies. This is avoided, if some probability mass is held out to account for the fact that we do, in fact, observe novel events even as adults. Feldman et al. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Front Psychol v. Front Psychol. Published online Aug 3. Florian Jaeger. Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer.

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Florian Jaeger ude. This article was submitted to Language Sciences, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Received Apr 7; Accepted Jul Keywords: accent, dialect, idiolect, salience, surprisal, prediction, expectation, learning. The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author s or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice.

No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms. This article has been corrected. See Front Psychol.

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This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Introduction Some sociolinguistic variables are prone to hypercorrection, stigmatization and style shifting, while other variables are not. First encounters with a variant: surprisal as a measure of initial salience Imagine a listener during the first moments of encountering a talker who speaks in an unfamiliar lect. Beyond the first encounter: frequency and association What then happens over time, as a novel lectal variant is encountered again?

Author contributions All authors listed, have made equally substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it for publication. Conflict of interest statement The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest. References Agha A. The social life of cultural value. The development of Japanese passive syntax as indexed by structural priming in comprehension. Awareness and Control in Sociolinguistic Research.

Does verb bias modulate syntactic priming? Cognition , — Perceptual adaptation to non-native speech. Contestation and enregisterment in Ohio's imagined dialects.

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Perception of speech reflects optimal use of probabilistic speech cues. Listening for mispronunciations in a children's story: the use of context by children and adults. Bayesian theories of conditioning in a changing world. In the case of social salience, this distinction is characterized as a comparison between the attributes of the target and the attributes of other items in the target's proximal ground. Other items in the target's proximal ground set the norm for attributes an observer can expect.


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  7. The strength of an object's social salience may also be underscored when it is the target of a goal-oriented search by an observer. The social salience of an individual is a compilation of that individual's salient attributes. These may be changes to dress or physical attributes with respect to a previous point in time or with respect to the surrounding environment Salient attributes of an individual may include the following:.

    The social salience of an individual in a group is defined both by individual salient attributes and comparison with the attributes of other members of the group. As with the salience of objects, the social salience of an individual in a group depends on the attributes of the other members of that group. Machines with multiple channels of communication allow for interpersonal communication among many active parties.

    Compared with direct communication, communication over digital interfaces result in fewer nonverbal cues that provide necessary information as to the relationships between participants status-specific or otherwise as well as other social context. As a result, communication over digital interfaces is less personable and less productive than in-person communication.

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    Oxytocin has a positive impact on the awareness of social cues in individuals with social impairment. The release of oxytocin both mediates directly prosocial behavior and increases perception of social salience. The salience of mortality is also an active moderator of social salience. Mechanistically, increasing salience of mortality increases fear of isolation and thereby improves the rate of altruistic pro-social behavior.

    This spurs awareness of relevant social cues leading to increased social salience. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Difference between observer's expectations of an object and the observable attributes of that object. Observer's goal — an object that matches goal-oriented searching.

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    Sound change, priming, salience: Producing and perceiving variation in Liverpool English. Berlin: Language Science Press. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Salience in Sociolinguistics: A Quantitative Approach.