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Dissertationsprojekt von Melanie Fuchs

Demonstrative Pronouns and Attention Orienting (working title)

“After the match, the goalkeeper hugged the player.” In order to refer back to one of these characters, several different pronouns are available to German speakers. They can use the personal pronoun “er” or one of the demonstrative pronouns “der” and “dieser”. (German is unlike many other languages in that it allows the speaker to use both personal and demonstrative pronouns to refer back to animate characters.) Surprisingly, when the speaker utters one particular pronoun, the listener knows exactly who the speaker means – although the pronoun itself doesn’t carry any meaning and, in this example, is ambiguous with respect to gender. How does the listener understand the speaker? In my dissertation project, I want to build on previous linguistic and psychological research that has looked at the processes and mechanisms underlying pronoun comprehension. In particular, I want to compare the two types of demonstrative pronouns (der vs dieser) which have been claimed to refer back and draw attention to less prominent characters. For this purpose, I will make use of different psycholinguistic methods. The main focus will be on how the human brain processes demonstrative pronouns (in comparison to personal pronouns) and how demonstrative pronouns are linked to more general processes of attention orienting.

But (demonstrative) pronouns do not only serve to refer back to characters from preceding clauses, they can also change the macrostructure of the upcoming discourse. It has been claimed that demonstrative pronouns have the potential to shift the focus of attention in the upcoming discourse towards a character that has been less noticeable so far. I will investigate this so called “forward potential” using different psycholinguistic methods. Finally, I will examine how children may differ from adults in processing demonstrative pronouns and using them as an attention-orienting device in discourse. My supervisor is Prof Dr Petra Schumacher.



Melanie Fuchs studied German, English and Educational Studies at the University of Cologne. While attending university, she worked as a student assistant in the Rector’s Office and for the Vice-Rector for Research (Prof Dr Bettina Rockenbach). She also spent one year at the University College London as part of the Erasmus exchange programme. Since 2017, she has been working at the collaborative research centre “Prominence in Language” at the University of Cologne, in project C07 that investigates different functions of discourse anaphora.

Contact: mfuchs10(at)uni-koeln.de


Cover photo: The picture shows a mannequin that is wearing a cap with electrodes. Electrodes are attached to the scalp in order to measure the brain’s electrical activity in reaction to particular stimuli. This gives us information about language processing (Photo: Florian Bogner) // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad