Modeling meaning-driven register variation: Politeness and face management

Project A05 investigates intra-speaker variation of alternatives that differ in their core logical or semantic content. In Phase II, A05 addresses the empirical domain of politeness, focusing on three classes of register phenomena: polite requests, evaluative language, and honorification. The central goals are i) to systematically collect empirical data of how and why speakers choose and hearers construe particular alternatives, ii) to develop probabilistic game-theoretic models of speaker choices that predict the empirical data in relation to linguistic, social and contextual parameters, and iii) to work out general mechanisms of speaker choices across politeness-related phenomena.


Project leader


Student assistant

Mariya Burbelko

Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS)

Doctoral fellows

Former members

Project in Phase I

Project Title for Phase I

Modeling meaning-driven register variation: Politeness and face management

Project Description for Phase I

A05 investigates situationally and functionally driven intra-individual variation involving alternatives that differ in their core logical or truth-conditional content. The project pursues two complementary perspectives, one bottom-up, building multi-factorial models of specific domains of variation, and one top-down, looking for generalizations across domains. For the former, the initial empirical domain of investigation is numerical (im)precision, for the latter, German indefinite expressions. Then general properties of meaning-driven variation will be identified, exploring two initial hypotheses: (i) A basic dichotomy exists between meaning-driven and form-driven variation, namely, when differences in logical meaning among alternatives exist, this must drive the variation. (ii) The semantic relationship between two register alternatives is constrained to subset relations.

Publications & Presentations



  • Pescuma, Valentina Nicole; Serova, Dina; Lukassek, Julia; Sauermann, Antje; Schäfer, Roland; Adli, Aria; Bildhauer, Felix; Egg, Markus; Hülk, Kristina; Ito, Aine; Jannedy, Stefanie; Kordoni, Valia; Kühnast, Milena; Kutscher, Silvia; Lange, Robert; Lehmann, Nico; Liu, Mingya; Lütke, Beate; Maquate, Katja; Mooshammer, Christine; Mortezapour, Vahid; Müller, Stefan; Norde, Muriel; Pankratz, Elizabeth; Patarroyo, Angela Giovanna; Plesca, Ana-Maria; Ronderos, Camilo R.; Rotter, Stephanie; Sauerland, Uli; Schulte, Britta; Schüppenhauer, Gediminas; Sell, Bianca Maria; Solt, Stephanie; Terada, Megumi; Tsiapou, Dimitra; Verhoeven, Elisabeth; Weirich, Melanie; Wiese, Heike; Zaruba, Kathy; Zeige, Lars Erik; Lüdeling, Anke; Knoeferle, Pia; Schnelle, Gohar  (2023) Situating language register across the ages, languages, modalities, and cultural aspects: Evidence from complementary methods In:  Frontiers in Psychology [DOI] [ViVo]
    In the present review paper by members of the collaborative research center ‘Register: Language Users’ Knowledge of SituationalFunctional Variation’ (CRC 1412), we assess the pervasiveness of register phenomena across different time periods, languages, modalities, and cultures. We define ‘register’ as recurring variation in language use depending on the function of language and on the social situation. Informed by rich data, we aim to better understand and model the knowledge involved in situation- and function-based use of language register. In order to achieve this goal, we are using complementary methods and measures. In the review, we start by clarifying the concept of ‘register’, by reviewing the state of the art, and by setting out our methods and modeling goals. Against this background, we discuss three key challenges, two at the methodological level and one at the theoretical level: 1. To better uncover registers in text and spoken corpora, we propose changes to established analytical approaches. 2. To tease apart between-subject variability from the linguistic variability at issue (intra-individual situation based register variability), we use within-subject designs and the modeling of individuals’ social, language, and educational background. 3. We highlight a gap in cognitive modeling, viz. modeling the mental representations of register (processing), and present our first attempts at filling this gap. We argue that the targeted use of multiple complementary methods and measures supports investigating the pervasiveness of register phenomena and yields comprehensive insights into the cross-methodological robustness of register-related language variability. These comprehensive insights in turn provide a solid foundation for associated cognitive modeling.
  • Veenstra, Tonjes; Krifka, Manfred; Akbari, Roodabeh; Buchmüller, Olga; Chark, Jordan; Döring, Sophia; Golcher, Felix; Schmidt, Peter  (2023) Podcast: Sprachen aus dem Schnellkochtopf: Register in Kreols (Teil 1) [ViVo]
    Kreolsprachen sind ein Wunder der Linguistik. Innerhalb weniger Generationen entstehen diese Sprachen dort, wo Menschen ohne gemeinsame Sprache miteinander kommunizieren müssen. Unser Projekt A02 "Speaker's choices in a creole context: Bislama and Morisien" untersucht zwei Kreolsprachen aus Melanesien und Mauritius. Wir sprechen mit Manfred Krifka und Tonjes Veenstra.
  • Lüdeling, Anke; Akbari, Roodabeh; Buchmüller, Olga; Chark, Jordan; Döring, Sophia; Golcher, Felix; Schmidt, Peter  (2023) Podcast: Was ist ein Register? [ViVo]
    Was ist damit gemeint, wenn wir in der Linguistik von "Registern" sprechen und warum ist das überhaupt interessant? Wir zeigen Beispiele dafür, wie Sprecher*innen zwischen Registern wechseln und was passiert, wenn das falsche Register gewählt wird. Anke Lüdeling erzählt uns in einem Interview, wie die Idee zu dem Sonderforschungsbereich entstanden ist.
    (Vielen Dank an Onur Özsoy, der uns das Telefon-Beispiel eingesprochen hat und an Andreas Nolda  für die Orgeleinspielungen!)
  • 2022

  • Mühlenbernd, Roland; Wacewicz, Slawomir; Zywiczyński, Przemyslaw  (2022) The evolution of ambiguity in sender—receiver signaling games In:  Games [DOI] [ViVo]
    We study an extended version of a sender–receiver signaling game—a context-signaling (CS) game that involves external contextual cues that provide information about a sender’s private information state. A formal evolutionary analysis of the investigated CS game shows that ambiguous signaling strategies can achieve perfect information transfer and are evolutionarily stable. Moreover, a computational analysis of the CS game shows that such perfect ambiguous systems have the same emergence probability as non-ambiguous perfect signaling systems in multi-agent simulations under standard evolutionary dynamics. We contrast these results with an experimental study where pairs of participants play the CS game for multiple rounds with each other in the lab to develop a communication system. This comparison shows that unlike virtual agents, human agents clearly prefer perfect signaling systems over perfect ambiguous systems.
  • Mühlenbernd, Roland; Solt, Stephanie  (2022) Modeling (im)precision in context In:  Linguistics Vanguard [DOI] [ViVo]
    Abstract Speakers’ choice between linguistic alternatives often depends on the situation, a prime example involving level of precision at which numerical information is communicated. We report on a production study in which participants report the time of an event in two different situations, and demonstrate that the results can be reproduced by a probabilistic game-theoretical model in which the speaker’s choice reflects a tradeoff between informativity, accuracy and hearer-oriented simplification. These findings shed light on the pragmatics of (im)precision, and the dynamics of situationally driven pragmatic variation more generally.
  • Beltrama, Andrea; Solt, Stephanie; Burnett, Heather  (2022) Context, precision, and social perception: A sociopragmatic study In:  Language in Society [DOI] [ViVo]
    Abstract In two perception experiments we explore the social indexicality of numerical expressions, comparing the evaluation of three variants: precise (e.g. ‘forty-nine minutes’) vs. explicitly approximate (e.g. ‘about fifty minutes’) vs. underspecified (e.g. ‘fifty minutes’). We ask two questions: (i) What constellations of social meanings are associated with each of these variants? (ii) How are such indexical associations modulated by the conversational setting? We find that the choice of approximate vs. precise forms differentially impact speaker evaluation along the social dimensions of Status, Solidarity, and anti-Solidarity, with underspecified numbers showing a flexible behavior. Furthermore, these associations are to some extent affected by the conversational setting, in particular the demands on descriptive precision placed by the context and the interlocutors’ goals. These findings reveal an intimate connection between pragmatic reasoning and social perception, highlighting the importance of integrating pragmatic theory in the study of social indexicality. (Social meaning, pragmatic variation, social perception, numerals, (im)precision)*
  • Sauerland, Uli  (2022) Quantifying the Register of German Quantificational Expressions: A Corpus-Based Study In:  Measurements, Numerals and Scales [DOI] [ViVo]
  • 2021

  • Umbach, Carla; Solt, Stephanie  (2021) Comparison via 'eher' In:  Journal of Semantics [DOI] [ViVo]
    Abstract This paper is about the semantics of the German adverb eher, which has three, or perhaps four, readings: temporal, epistemic, metalinguistic and—depending on whether it is accepted as a genuine reading—preference. In its epistemic reading, eher gained prominence in semantics because it was used by Kratzer (1981) to argue that the notion of possibility is gradable. Eher has also received attention from a diachronic perspective, where it has been compared to the English adverb rather ( Gergel 2009). Our analysis starts from the temporal reading which, first of all, expresses temporal precedence. We argue that temporal eher is indexical (unlike früher/‘earlier’), comparing closeness to a perspectival center, and that the non-temporal readings inherit their basic structure from the temporal one. The analysis of the non-temporal readings will be embedded in a Kratzer-style ordering semantics, deviating from the standard picture in assuming (i), that both the modal base and the ordering source are relativized to a perspective holder and (ii), that in the case of metalinguistic eher, interpretations (in the sense of Barker 2002/ Krifka 2012) are compared instead of worlds. Our analysis is different from that developed by Herburger & Rubinstein (2018), which ignores the temporal as well as the metalinguistic reading and takes recourse to “degrees of belief”. At the end of the paper, we briefly look at expressions related to eher, including English more and its German counterpart mehr as well as English rather, and also at the modal reading of German schon (‘already’).
  • Mühlenbernd, Roland; Wacewicz, Slawomir; Zywiczyński, Przemyslaw  (2021) Politeness and reputation in cultural evolution In:  Linguistics and Philosophy [DOI] [ViVo]
    Politeness in conversation is a fascinating aspect of human interaction that directly interfaces language use and human social behavior more generally. We show how game theory, as a higher-order theory of behavior, can provide the tools to understand and model polite behavior. The recently proposed responsibility exchange theory (Chaudhry and Loewenstein in Psychol Rev 126(3):313–344, 2019) describes how the polite communications of thanking and apologizing impact two different types of an agent’s social image: (perceived) warmth and (perceived) competence. Here, we extend this approach in several ways, most importantly by adding a cultural-evolutionary dynamics that makes it possible to investigate the evolutionary stability of politeness strategies. Our analysis shows that in a society of agents who value status-related traits (such as competence) over reciprocity-related traits (such as warmth), both the less and the more polite strategies are maintained in cycles of cultural-evolutionary change.
  • 2020

  • Sauerland, Uli; Alexiadou, Artemis  (2020) Generative Grammar: A Meaning First Approach In:  Frontiers in Psychology [DOI] [ViVo]
    The theory of language must predict the possible thought—signal (or meaning—sound or sign) pairings of a language. We argue for a Meaning First architecture of language where a thought structure is generated first. The thought structure is then realized using language to communicate the thought, to memorize it, or perhaps with another purpose. Our view contrasts with the T-model architecture of mainstream generative grammar, according to which distinct phrase-structural representations—Phonetic Form (PF) for articulation, Logical Form (LF) for interpretation—are generated within the grammar. At the same time, our view differs from early transformational grammar and generative semantics: We view the relationship between the thought structure and the corresponding signal as one of compression. We specify a formal sketch of compression as a choice between multiple possible pronounciations balancing the desire to transmit information against the effort of pronounciation. The Meaning First architecture allows a greater degree of independence between thought structures and the linguistic signal. We present three arguments favoring this type of independence. First we argue that scopal properties can be better explained if we only compare thought structures independent of the their realization as a sentence. Secondly, we argue that Meaning First architecture allows contentful late insertion, an idea that has been argued for in Distributed Morphology already, but as we argue is also motivated by the division of the logical and socio-emotive meaning content of language. Finally, we show that only the Meaning First architecture provides a satisfying account of the mixing of multiple languages by multilingual speakers, especially for cases of simultaneous articulation across two modalities in bimodal speakers. Our view of the structure of grammar leads to a reassessment of priorities in linguistic analyses: while current mainstream work is often focused on establishing one-to-one relationships between concepts and morphemes, our view makes it plausible that primitive concepts are frequently marked indirectly or unpronounced entirely. Our view therefore assigns great value to the understanding of logical primitives and of compression.
  • Lüdeling, Anke; Alexiadou, Artemis; Adli, Aria; Donhauser, Karin; Dreyer, Malte; Egg, Markus; Feulner, Anna Helene; Gagarina, Natalia; Hock, Wolfgang; Jannedy, Stefanie; Kammerzell, Frank; Knoeferle, Pia; Krause, Thomas; Krifka, Manfred; Kutscher, Silvia; Lütke, Beate; McFadden, Thomas; Meyer, Roland; Mooshammer, Christine; Müller, Stefan; Maquate, Katja; Norde, Muriel; Sauerland, Uli; Szucsich, Luka; Verhoeven, Elisabeth; Waltereit, Richard; Wolfsgruber, Anne; Zeige, Lars Erik  (2020) Register: Language Users’ Knowledge of Situational-Functional Variation In:  REALIS: Register Aspects of Language in Situation [DOI] [ViVo]
    The Collaborative Research Center 1412 “Register: Language Users’ Knowledge of Situational-Functional Variation” (CRC 1412) investigates the role of register in language, focusing in particular on what constitutes a language user’s register knowledge and which situational-functional factors determine a user’s choices. The following paper is an extract from the frame text of the proposal for the CRC 1412, which was submitted to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in 2019, followed by a successful onsite evaluation that took place in 2019. The CRC 1412 then started its work on January 1, 2020. The theoretical part of the frame text gives an extensive overview of the theoretical and empirical perspectives on register knowledge from the viewpoint of 2019. Due to the high collaborative effort of all PIs involved, the frame text is unique in its scope on register research, encompassing register-relevant aspects from variationist approaches, psycholinguistics, grammatical theory, acquisition theory, historical linguistics, phonology, phonetics, typology, corpus linguistics, and computational linguistics, as well as qualitative and quantitative modeling. Although our positions and hypotheses since its submission have developed further, the frame text is still a vital resource as a compilation of state-of-the-art register research and a documentation of the start of the CRC 1412. The theoretical part without administrative components therefore presents an ideal starter publication to kick off the CRC’s publication series REALIS. For an overview of the projects and more information on the CRC, see https://sfb1412.hu-berlin.de/.
  • Sauerland, Uli  (2020) Study to validate the SOLT as a measure of register[DOI] [ViVo]
    We study whether a new measure of register we propose, the SOLT, corresponds to the annotations of Register provided in the Duden dictionary of German.
  • Presentations


  • Chark, Jordan  (2023) Situational biases in diachrony: how register distinctions emerge In:  Formal Diachronic Semantics (FoDS) 7 [ViVo]
  • Chark, Jordan  (2023) Discourse structure and the reorganisation of the Icelandic aspectual system In:  Discourse Structure and Narration: A Diachronic View from Germanic [ViVo]
  • Solt, Stephanie  (2023) Not very easy: towards the unification of scalar implicature & understatement In:  The 33rd meeting of Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT 33), Yale Uiversity, New Haven [ViVo]
  • 2022

  • Chark, Jordan  (2022) A perfect-like stative: On Icelandic búinn að and pragmatic competition in the aspectual domain In:  Sinn und Bedeutung 27, Charles University [ViVo]
  • Chark, Jordan  (2022) Subordinate Contexts Can Be Innovative: Evidence from the History of Icelandic In:  International Conference on Historical Linguistics (ICHL25) [ViVo]
  • Solt, Stephanie  (2022) Towards an alternative-based theory of understatement In:  Workshop on Alternatives, Expectations and Domain Widening, Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv [ViVo]
  • Solt, Stephanie  (2022) 'Much', polarity and register In:  Online-Colloquium "Empirical English Linguistics", Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin [ViVo]
  • 2021

  • Chark, Jordan  (2021) A formal account of the diachrony of the Icelandic ‘finish’ perfect In:  Formal Diachronic Semantics (FoDS) 6 (virtual) [ViVo]
  • Mühlenbernd, Roland  (2021) The evolution of ambiguity in communication systems In:  Protolang 7, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf [ViVo]
  • Mühlenbernd, Roland  (2021) Politeness and reputation In:  Workshop on Oppressive Speech, Societies and Norms (Theme 3: Social Meaning & Semantics/Pragmatics of Harmful Speech), Berlin, Germany [ViVo]
  • Baumann, Andreas; Mühlenbernd, Roland  (2021) Population-level models of evolutionary pragmatics In:  Evolutionary Pragmatics Forum (virtual) [ViVo]
  • Solt, Stephanie  (2021) On the social meaning of (im)precision in context In:  Workshop on Oppressive Speech, Societies and Norms (Theme 3: Social Meaning & Semantics/Pragmatics of Harmful Speech), Berlin, Germany [ViVo]