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Salience is the elephant in the linguistic room

16 March 2022
Vincent Boswijk

What does the concept of 'linguistic salience' mean? On Thursday 17 March, Vincent Boswijk will be awarded his PhD on this topic, thereby completing his PhD programme at the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân with his thesis entitled ‘The salient elephant in the room: exploring the concept of linguistic salience.’

There are various definitions for this hard to pin down concept. Some interpretations link the salience of a linguistic element to the extent to which it is able to draw our attention, while others connect the concept to the frequency, the difficulty level, or the extent of interest in a variable. Despite the lack of a clear definition, the concept is used to clarify various linguistic processes, such as language learning and language variation and change. It is, therefore, no wonder that the concept is characterized as being ‘notoriously difficult to quantify’ (Hickey, 2000). In other words, the concept of linguistic salience is an elephant in the room.

Grasping linguistic salience

In his PhD thesis, Boswijk researched whether it is possible to combine multiple definitions of linguistic salience. In addition, he investigated the possibilities to quantitatively measure salience. To this end, Boswijk used a combination of sociolinguistic theories and psycholinguistic methods. The outcomes of the research show that there is, indeed, no clear definition but that the most customary definitions can be translated into an extent of predictability of a certain variable. Moreover, an EEG scan and eye-tracking research showed that the response of the brain can be measured.

‘In my research, I problematize a concept that has been used in linguistics for a long time. I call it the elephant in the room for good reason: there are many indications that the way in which we use this concept is problematic, nevertheless we still often apply it. I did sometimes encounter resistance because of this, but most of the linguists to whom I have spoken actually recognize the problems surrounding the concept and support more research being done into this’, explains Boswijk.

Looking at the big picture

The soon-to-be Dr Vincent Boswijk reflects on an intensive but enjoyable period. ‘I have learned a great deal due to the complexity and scope of the project. I have been able to work with many wonderful participants, deploy fantastic research techniques such as EEG scans and eye tracking, and even follow a course on neuroanatomy. These were definitely highlights during my research. What I missed during the drier, theoretical parts was human contact, which I had been used to from my time in elderly care. The large extent of interdisciplinarity was also a great aspect of conducting research at Campus Fryslân and the BCN research school. Due to this, I learned to look further than my own field and to rather think in terms of the big picture.’

Vincent Boswijk
Vincent Boswijk

About Vincent Boswijk

Vincent Boswijk studied Scandinavian Studies and Linguistics at the University of Groningen, where he subsequently began his research at Campus Fryslân in 2017. He is currently running for the Municipal Council in Groningen.

Thesis on: ‘The salient elephant in the room: exploring the concept of linguistic salience’

Date: 17 March 2022
Time: Introductory speech 12.30 p.m., PhD defence 12.45 p.m.
Location: Municipality of Leeuwarden City Hall, Hofplein 38; or online via the livestream

Last modified:27 June 2022 11.56 a.m.
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