Research directions

Project Overview  ||  Ad hoc categories  ||   Converging evidence ||  Impact

The research program aims to answer the following core theoretical questions, through three parallel research directions:

1) TYPOLOGICAL SURVEY. What types of constructions are attested to express ad hoc categories? Are there universal tendencies and correlations between specific types of ad hoc categories, different degrees of context-dependence and particular morphosyntactic features? Through this research direction we expect identify systematic correlations between particular morphosyntactic features and particular types of ad hoc categories, in the form of implicational hierarchies, revealing the limits of the attested cross-linguistic variation.

Methodology. Due to their heterogeneous and highly discursive nature, linguistic strategies encoding ad hoc categories are not generally addressed in specific chapters of grammatical descriptions. This limitation, however, does not prevent the cross-linguistic identification of the relevant phenomena: modern comprehensive grammars often contain a more or less large corpus of (mostly oral) texts, in which the relevant structures can be identified; moreover, the existing literature, though episodic, provides hints as to the areas of grammars that are most likely to provide means for encoding ad hoc categories (number, morphological processes such as reduplication, connectives, discourse particles, etc.). In the absence of significant data (but also in order to complement limited data sets) resort to language experts through questionnaires might become essential to the aims of the research program. As a second stage of the typological survey, once the relevant data have been gathered for various languages, a look at real examples of the grammatical structures identified in natural texts might shed light on their use and their multifunctionality patterns.

2) DIACHRONIC ANALYSIS. Where do these structures come from? What grammatical resources are more frequently mobilized to convey this function? What are the diachronic sources of strategies encoding ad hoc categories? What are the diachornic paths they follow when developing an ad-hoc category building function. We expect to identify a finite set of recurrent diachronic sources, revealing the areas of grammar that tend to be mobilized to express this function, and to highlight the communicative and cognitive factors at play in the specialization of certain constructions as ad hoc category markers.

Methodology. The diachronic analysis is meant to provide both (i) a comprehensive diachronic typology of the sources of the constructions encoding ad hoc categories and (ii) more in-depth analyses of the diachronic pathways leading to them. While objective (ii) can be reached by adopting standard methods in historical linguistics, objective (i) faces a major methodological challenge, having to do with lack of documentation. While in well-documented languages it is possible to trace the successive stages of the development of a given diachronic path in natural texts, and to identify the critical contexts in which a given grammatical item (word, morpheme, construction) starts to perform a given semantic function, in less-documented languages and language families the diachronic analysis of the relevant strategies is in most cases limited to the etymological reconstruction of their source. As a consequence, in many cases what we can reconstruct are not full-fledged diachronic developments but diachronic scenarios based on plausibility and on synchronic distributional patterns. The plausibility of such scenarios, however, can be only partially proved on independent grounds, and there is a serious danger of circularity in the argumentation. In such cases, we will follow the principle of typological and genealogical plausibility (Givon, 2000: 120), based on the idea that what is known from the observed history of languages can be used as a key for making inferences about what is unknown/unobservable. The analysis of a handful of case studies from well-documented languages is meant to tease out the mechanisms at work in the development of the ad hoc category building function.

3) CORPUS-BASED STUDY. Are there different aims and different ways in which ad hoc categories may be built in discourse? More generally, what is the role of ad hoc categories in discourse? The evaluation of the discourse relevance and discourse phenomenology of ad hoc categories aims to identify different ways in which ad hoc categories may be built in discourse, the function of the conversational move of creating an ad hoc category in various discourse situations, as well as the pragmatic mechanisms underlying such a move, both in terms of the speaker-hearer relationship and in terms of topic management. We expect to identify regular patterns in discourse that reveal the actual function of ad hoc categories in human communication, that is why, how and when do speakers recur to this type of categorization process.

Methodology. The third thematic focus of the project is concerned with the discourse relevance of the process of ad hoc category building. The analysis will minimally be conducted for Italian and English. The first methodological challenge we face has to do with the creation of a comparable corpus of texts. Ad hoc category building is possibly more pervasive in conversation than in the written language, and in procedural conversation more than in casual conversation. The textual dynamics of ad hoc category building will be explored by resorting to common practices in conversational analysis such as the analysis of the discourse relevance of the ad hoc categories (and the exemplars used to construct them) in terms of referential continuity/accessibility and of their typical collocation in discourse (recurrent contexts). If necessary, the analysis will also deal with the sociolinguistics of ad hoc category building, by taking into account, for instance, what happens in situations of asymmetric power relationships between speaker and hearer.