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The interpretation of syntactic focus variation

  • Katharina Hartmann (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main)
21 February 2019
Com(parative) Syn(tax) Meetings
P.N. van Eyckhof 2
2311 BV Leiden


In many West-African languages, non-subject focus in questions and answers is expressed in two varying syntactic forms, an ex situ form, and an in situ form. Ex situ focus is syntactically marked in one or several respects involving at least fronting of the focused constituent. In situ focus shows the canonical word order and usually no formal indication of focus. This asymmetry has been taken to indicate an information structural split between two types of focus relating in situ order to new information, and ex situ order to contrastive focus. Whether this semantic distinction is categorical or not, is a matter of contro-versial debate. Critics of the view that form and interpretation vary along the same coordinates have argued that the correlation between ex situ vs. in situ focus and contrastive vs. non-contrastive interpretation is only a tendency, and not a 1:1 correlation, e.g. Hartmann & Zimmermann (2007). Zimmermann (2008) and Zimmermann & Onea (2011) propose to derive the ‘contrastive’ effect of ex situ focus from a discourse-semantic strategy that allows the speaker to indicate unexpected discourse moves.

In this talk, I first discuss new data from Dagbani (Mabia), which support the claim in Titov (t.a.) on Akan that the alternative set represented by an ex situ focus is interpreted as discourse-salient but not exhaustively. Ex situ and in situ focus differ wrt. the discourse-salience of the elements from the focus alternative sets. In situ focus refers to an open set not expressing any expec-tation from the part of the speaker wrt. to the state of mind of the hearer. Ex situ focus on the other hand, refers to discourse-salient alternatives, which, according to Titov (t.a.), are D-linked. This interpretation is naturally compati-ble with a uniqueness interpretation of the focus constituent. Exhaustivity is syntactically coded by a cleft structure not regularly used in focus contexts.

Second, I will fathom the possibility of non-matching pairs of ex situ and in situ questions and answers in some Niger-Congo languages. I show that the se-quence Q in situ – A ex situ is often blocked. Departing from the assumption that the alternative sets of in situ and ex situ focus differ in size, I claim that the set denoted by the question must be equal to or contained in the set de-noted by the answer. This accounts for the unavailability of the mentioned sequenceI suggest that this may be derived from a presupposition failure.

References: • Hartmann, Katharina & Malte Zimmermann (2007): Place – Out of Place: Focus in Hausa. Kerstin Schwabe and Susanne Winkler (eds.) On Information Structure: Meaning and Form. Amster-dam: John Benjamins. 365–403. • Titov, Elena (2018): Morphosyntactic Encoding of Information Struc-ture in Akan. To appear in Glossa. • Zimmermann, Malte (2008): Contrastive Focus and Emphasis. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55: 347–360. • Zimmermann, Malte and Edgar Onea (2011): Focus Marking und Focus Interpretation. Lingua 121: 1651–1670. doi:10.1016/j.lingua.2011.06.002

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