Does it play a role in referent disambiguation?
It is often claimed that reference tracking is a key function of nominal classification systems, not least because of the role such systems can play in referent disambiguation. This paper reports on the results of a comparative study of reference in texts from four languages, focusing specifically on the disambiguating function of nominal classification. The results strongly suggest that disambiguation is not a primary function of nominal classification systems. While gender and/or classifiers sometimes contribute to the avoidance of referential conflict, the reality is that the conditions have to be just right – all competing references must be of opposing genders, and those genders must be formally distinct – and this happens with surprisingly low frequency. We are better off viewing disambiguation as a convenient by-product of nominal classification systems that a language can exploit when conditions allow.
Keywords: nominal classification, gender, classifiers, referent, disambiguation, reference tracking, referential conflict
Published online: 06 May 2020
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