In the Flashlights
The Principle of ‘Prominence’ organizes our Language and plays a Key Role in processing the Flood of Information in Our Everyday Lives
Prof. Dr. Klaus von Heusinger (SFB-Sprecher) | Institute for German Language and Literature I
Collaborative Research Centre 1252 “Prominence in Language” is being funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) for their first four-year funding period
The principle of Prominence is probably a relevant principle in all languages that helps us to organize the things we want to say or write in an efficient and communicatively successful manner. It filters important from less important information and supports the processing of the given input.
There appears to be no connection between linguistic Prominence and the prominent celebrities we know from the yellow press – at first glance. But the similarity between the terms is not a coincidence. The term ‘prominence’ derives from the Latin prominere, which means to stand out, and refers to the property of being in the foreground and receiving more attention than others.
Celebrities thus share this feature with the information we mark as prominent when we use language.
In contrast to celebrities, prominent expressions do not stand in focus 24/7 but appear and disappear from the red carpet and the flashlights. When and why that happens, or rather, how the linguistic principle of Prominence works in detail, is the key question of the Collaborative Research Centre 1252 “Prominence in Language”. More than seventy University of Cologne linguists are working together on this research alliance – ranging from disciplines such as African to Slavic Studies.
We use the Prominence principle intuitively in our everyday interactions. It has also been observed that utterances and discourse in general is organized around prominent units which appear to serve as anchoring points for information flow. We speak of Prominence when we emphasize a word in an utterance by means of loudness or length, for example. At the same time, prominent words determine the construction of expressions and discourses.
The dynamic production of language expressions provides us with exciting insight into thought processes. How do we convey what is important in our expressions to conversation partners? And what does the interplay between language and thought look like: To what extent do language resources structure our thoughts and other cognitive processes such a image perception or spatial orientation?
To answer these questions, the “Prominence in Language” project is bringing together almost all sub-disciplines of linguistics such as typology, phonetics and phonology, morphosyntax, semantics, discourse-pragmatics, neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics. With the help of theoretical and experimental methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) and corpus linguistic techniques, the team is highly equipped to put a spotlight on Prominence for the first time. They shed light on a principle we have not quite been able to understand until now.
Text: Frieda Berg