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Encoding varieties of topic and focus: The role of contrast and information status

A workshop (AG) organized as part of the 41st Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of Germany (DGfS) in Bremen, 6-8 March 2019.



Sophie Repp (Cologne)

Johannes Mursell (Frankfurt)


Invited Speakers

Silvio Cruschina (Vienna)

Frank Kügler (Frankfurt)


Workshop Description

This workshop aims at gaining a better understanding of the syntax and phonology of different types of topics and foci. The term 'type' here refers to aspects like the information-structural dimensions contrast and information status (given...new), as well as to other semantic/pragmatic differences that have been associated with different varieties of topics and foci. We are particularly interested in syntactic and phonological strategies used to mark these type-relevant aspects, in the sense that certain marking strategies typically result in a specific semantic/pragmatic interpretation of the topical/focused element. For instance, contrastive focus, or identificational focus, has frequently been associated with a left peripheral position in the clause in several languages, occurring in this area together with certain kinds of topics. We would like to address the question if there are further type-relevant characteristics that can be associated with a left-peripheral position, and if so, how exactly these characteristics can be defined (for contrast, e.g. Repp 2016). Similarly, are there type-relevant characteristics that can be associated with a non-left-peripheral position (e.g. newness for foci or givenness for topics), and if so, with what position exactly? Finally, can comparable restrictions be found in the nominal domain?

Besides the different types of information-structural marking, the workshop will also address characteristics that seem to cross-cut the typical divide between topic and focus, for example contrast. In several eastern African languages contrastive topics frequently behave like foci, raising the question of the exact semantic/pragmatic impact that contrast has on these categories.

For prosodic reflexes of different types of topics/foci, similar questions can be asked. For instance, do contrastive topics and contrastive foci share phonetic/phonological characteristics in comparison to their non-contrastive variants? And what exactly makes a contrastive phrase contrastive?

In addition to the issue of varieties of topics/foci, we are also interested in critical evaluations of the terms topic and focus themselves because e.g. especially thematic topics are notoriously difficult to define (Büring 2016). Such evaluations could not only include discussions of synchronic properties but also of the diachronic development of topic and focus in general and with respect to the different types mentioned above.