In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Accessibility Theory in Linguistics

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  • Foundational Works and Comprehensive Overviews

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Linguistics Accessibility Theory in Linguistics
Sofiana Lindemann, Mira Ariel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0319


Natural discourse weaves together Given (already known) and New information. But their differential roles in communication dictates that speakers distinguish between these two types of information. Linguistically marking information as Given facilitates comprehension, thus contributing to communicative efficiency. At the heart of Accessibility theory is the concept of accessibility of the mental representations associated with Given discourse referents or chunks of information. These representations come in fine gradations and are more salient or less salient to the addressee at different points in the discourse. The claim is that the Accessibility principles argued for are the natural language response to this state of affairs. Accessibility theory explains speakers’ choices between alternative linguistic expressions, e.g., definite descriptions, pronouns, zeros, etc., which denote information already available to the addressee. The main claim is that each referring expression is specialized for a different relative degree of mental accessibility, and addressees rely on these cues when accessing the speaker-intended referents. The degree of accessibility associated with a particular discourse entity is a function of a complex set of factors, involving both linguistic (e.g., subjecthood, Givenness), and non-linguistic factors (e.g., visual salience). Accessibility theory proposes that overall, less informative, nonrigid (potentially ambiguous), phonologically attenuated referential forms, such as zeroes and unstressed personal pronouns, typically retrieve highly accessible referents, while more informative, rigid, and unattenuated expressions, such as definite descriptions and proper names, retrieve less accessible referents. Reflecting a cognitive principle, Accessibility theory is predicted to hold cross-linguistically. Moreover, it is applicable to linguistic phenomena other than reference, such as word order, Given information constructions, language acquisition and language change. At the same time, Accessibility theory cannot account for every distributional fact associated with referential forms. These may show different degrees of sensitivity to different factors cross-linguistically. More importantly, in order to account for the production and comprehension of referring expressions, Accessibility theory must be complemented by a general Gricean theory of inference. Indeed, the theory very comfortably fits within Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance theory, where the retrieval of accessible representations is a crucial step in processing incoming utterances. Several well-known theories, most prominently Centering, and the Givenness Hierarchy, offer valuable insights into the process of organizing information and/or reference. Centering theory only partially overlaps with Accessibility theory, whereas the Givenness Hierarchy directly competes with it. Sofiana Lindemann’s present work was supported by a grant of the Romanian Ministry of Education and Research, CNCS - UEFISCDI, project number PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2020-0731, within PNCDI III. Mira Ariel gratefully acknowledges the financial support received from the Israel Science Foundation (grant 1398/20) for carrying out the research here undertaken.

Foundational Works and Comprehensive Overviews

Mental accessibility is at the heart of many approaches to language comprehension. Ariel 1988a and Ariel 1990 were the first publications to introduce Accessibility theory, which remain leading, comprehensive sources for understanding the role of mental accessibility in language comprehension and production. Ariel 1990 outlines the key concepts and principles of the theory, but Ariel 2001 is a more up-to-date version of the theory, where the author focuses on the role of accessibility specifically for referential acts, makes some (minor) amendments, incorporates discussion of later research (the author’s own and others’), and adds discussions of grammaticization and of competing theories.

  • Ariel, M. 1988a. Referring and accessibility. Journal of Linguistics 24:65–87.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022226700011567

    Argues against characterizing referring expressions according to the context type responsible for the Givenness status of referents (i.e., shared encyclopedic knowledge, speech situation, and prior context), and proposes Accessibility theory instead.

  • Ariel, M. 1990. Accessing noun-phrase antecedents. London: Routledge.

    Seminal monograph on the concept of accessibility in language use, which laid the foundation for very many later discussions of the role of accessibility in reference processing and in other linguistic and non-linguistic phenomena.

  • Ariel, M. 2001. Accessibility theory: An overview. In Text representation: Linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects. Edited by T. J. M. Sanders, J. Schilperoord, and W. Spooren, 29–87. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    A very useful shorter and up-to-date version of Accessibility theory with discussions of how the theory can be applied to different linguistic phenomena.

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