Information Content (Language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Definition

In linguistics and information theory, the term information content refers to the amount of information conveyed by a particular unit of language in a particular context.

"An example of information content," suggests Martin H. Weik, "is the meaning assigned to the data in a message" (Communications Standard Dictionary, 1996).

As Chalker and Weiner point out in the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (1994), "The notion of information content is related to statistical probability. If a unit is totally predictable then, according to information theory, it is informationally redundant and its information content is nil. This is actually true of the to particle in most contexts (e.g. What are you going . . . do?)."

The concept of information content was first systematically examined in Information, Mechanism and Meaning (1969) by British physicist and information theorist Donald M. MacKay.

Greetings

"One of the essential functions of language is to enable members of a speech community to maintain social relations with one another, and greetings are a very straightforward way of doing this. Indeed, an appropriate social interchange may well consist entirely of greetings, without any communication of information content."

(Bernard Comrie, "On Explaining Language Universals." The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structures, ed. by Michael Tomasello. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003)

Functionalism

"Functionalism . . . dates back to the early twentieth century and has its roots in the Prague School of Eastern Europe. [Functional frameworks] differ from the Chomskyan frameworks in emphasizing the information content of utterances, and in considering language primarily as a system of communication. . . . Approaches based on functional frameworks have dominated European study of SLA [Second Language Acquisition] and are widely followed elsewhere in the world."

(Muriel Saville-Troike, Introducing Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Propositions

"For our purposes here, the focus will be on declarative sentences such as

(1) Socrates is talkative.

Plainly, utterances of sentences of this type are a direct way of conveying information. We shall call such utterances 'statements' and the information-content conveyed by them 'propositions.' The proposition expressed by an utterance of (1) is

(2) That Socrates is talkative.

Provided the speaker is sincere and competent, her utterance of (1) could also be taken to express a belief with the content that Socrates is talkative. That belief then has exactly the same information-content as the speaker's statement: it represents Socrates as being in a certain way (namely, talkative)."

("Names, Descriptions, and Demonstratives." Philosophy of Language: The Central Topics, ed. by Susana Nuccetelli and Gary Seay. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)

The Information Content of Children's Speech

"[T]he linguistic utterances of very young children are limited in both length and information content (Piaget, 1955). Children whose 'sentences' are limited to one to two words may request food, toys or other objects, attention and help. They may also spontaneously note or name objects in their environment and ask or answer questions of who, what or where (Brown, 1980). The information content of these communications, however, is 'sparse' and limited to actions experienced by both listener and speaker and to objects known to both. Usually, only one object or action is requested at a time.

"As linguistic lexicon and sentence length increase, so too does information content (Piaget, 1955). By four to five years, children may request explanations about causality, with the proverbial 'why' questions. They may also describe their own actions verbally, give others brief instructions in sentence format, or describe objects with a series of words. Even at this stage, however, children have difficulty making themselves understood unless the actions, objects and events are known to both speaker and hearer. . . .

"Not until the elementary school years of seven to nine can children fully describe events to listeners unfamiliar with them by incorporating large amounts of information in appropriately structured series of sentences. It is also at this time that children become capable of debating and absorbing factual knowledge transmitted by formal education or other non-experiential means."

(Kathleen R. Gibson, "Tool Use, Language and Social Behavior in Relationship to Information Processing Abilities." Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution, ed. by Kathleen R. Gibson and Tim Ingold. Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Input-Output Models of Information Content

"Most any empirical belief . . . will be richer in information content than the experience that led to its acquisition--and this on any plausible account of the appropriate information measures. This is a consequence of the philosophical commonplace that the evidence a person has for an empirical belief rarely entails the belief. While we may come to believe that all armadillos are omnivorous by observing the eating habits of a fair sample of armadillos, the generalization is not implied by any number of propositions attributing various tastes to particular armadillos. In the case of mathematical or logical beliefs it is rather harder to specify the relevant experiential input. But again it seems that on any appropriate measure of information content the information contained within our mathematical and logical beliefs outruns that contained in our total sensory history."

(Stephen Stich, "The Idea of Innateness." Collected Papers, Volume 1: Mind and Language, 1972-2010. Oxford University Press, 2011)

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