Universiteit Leiden

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Lecture

Subjects in focus in West Africa

Date
Friday 22 March 2019
Time
Series
This Time for Africa!
Location
P.N. van Eyckhof 4
P.N. van Eyckhof 4
2311 BV Leiden
Room
0.04

Abstract

It is a well known observation, made increasingly often in recent years, that subject arguments behave differently to non-subjects when focussed in the languages of West Africa. Especially Fiedler et al (2010) show that subject foci are more robustly marked than other foci, an observation that cross-cuts various different encoding strategies. Their claim is effectively functional: subjects are more robustly marked since their canonical position is usually associated with a topic interpretation and obligatory focus marking thus serves to both highlight the focus, and the fact that they are not topics under this interpretation. In this talk, I will look on Dagbani, a Gur language of northern Ghana. I will show that whilst at first glance Dagbani does have a bifurcation into subject and non-subject foci: pace Fiedler et al, this in fact is a trifurcation into matrix subjects, embedded subjects, vs. non-subjects. Embedded subjects and non-subjects behave alike morphologically, to the exclusion of matrix subjects, whilst matrix subjects and non-subjects behave alike syntactically, contrasting with embedded subjects. I will show that we can use the syntactic differences between matrix and embedded subjects as a way for accounting for the morphological differences between matrix subjects and other elements. The analysis can be summed up as there being are a conspiracy of factors that conspire to force movement of the matrix subject to a higher position than all other elements.  Building from this analysis, I will show that the conspiracy of factors seen in Dagbani are also shared with other languages of the region. I will discuss a brief typology of language types, according to how matrix subjects behave under focus compared to other elements. We will see that those factors identified in Dagbani are not inviolable, and different languages of the region choose a different one to violate, leading to a plethora of different focus strategies.

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