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Topic/Focus (was: Valentine's Day Translations)

From:Kristian Jensen <kljensen@...>
Date:Sunday, February 14, 1999, 19:51
Tim Smith wrote:
>At 10:16 PM 2/12/99 +0100, Kristian Jensen wrote: >>Alright then, me too! >> >>In the languages I speak: >> English: I love you >> Danish: Jeg elsker dig >> Tagalog: Mahal kita >> >>In my conlang, Boreanesian: >> Kele'aihkuh kih >> lit. "I'm your lover/endearer" >>or >> Ke'aihkih kuh >> lit. "You're my love/dear" >>or >> Kuhke'aihkih >> lit. "O you, my love/precious!" (addressing the loved-one) >> >>Once again, Boreanesian is highly sensitive to topic/focus. There >>are two ways of translating the English expression "I love you", >>depending on whether "I" or "you" is the topic/focus. In the first >>example, "I" the agent is topicalized/focused. In the next two, >>"you" the patient is topicalized/focused. The third way is the >>most intimate of focusing the patient. > >This is very interesting. But I'm a bit confused about what you >mean by "topic/focus". It's easy to be unclear about these two >terms because they're used in different ways by different writers.
Well, this is sorta the reason why I chose to use both terms: they are used differently by different people. But I did not intend to be confusing - oops! Another reason why I have used both terms is because Boreanesian is indeed sensitive to both topic and focus. BTW, what you have written below is essentially how I understand the difference between topic and focus:
>But most of the recent linguistic literature that I've seen, they >have very different, almost opposite, meanings. The topic is what >you're talking about; it's old, given information. The focus is >the new information that you're trying to convey about the topic, >or (as some people use the term) a part of the new information that >you're singling out for special emphasis. IIRC, Matt Pearson once >explained the difference by referring to the "as for" construction >and the cleft construction in English as examples of topic-marking >and focus-marking, respectively. In the sentence, "as for John, he >went to the library", John is the topic; John is who we're talking >about, and what we're saying about him is that he went to the >library. But in the clefted sentence, "it was John who went to the >library", John is the focus. The speaker is presupposing that the >listener already knows that someone went to the library, and is >telling them who it was. (Though of course those are both very >marked constructions; most of the time in English we just rely on >intonation and context to mark topic and focus.) > >By these definitions (which I think are pretty standard today, >although they're not very precise), I have the impression that in >Tagalog the trigger can be either the topic or the focus. From >some stuff I've read that wasn't entirely clear, it sounded to me >as if the trigger is normally the topic, but can be made the focus >by putting it before the verb. Does that sound right to you? (I >gather you're a native speaker of Tagalog.)
I'm not a native speaker, but I happen to have a mother who is a Filipina (Ilocana to be precise), and she speaks to me in Tagalog and I get away with Taglish 8-). Anyways, what you have said about Tagalog sounds right to me.
>And if so, does Boreanesian work the same way?
Boreanesian works in a similar way, at least in the sense of changing word order. The story is a bit more complex though. The differences are that (syntactically speaking) the predicate and the trigger are always at the beginning and end of a clause respectively, and that the trigger is always topic while the focus can be said to always be the predicate. This may sound contradicting, but word order can still be changed even when the triggers and predicates don't. For example, "the animal is crippled" can be translated as follows depending on what is trigger: a) PREDICATE = "cripple", TRIGGER = "animal" <ngehu' 'ehsetingh> a cripple the animal b) PREDICATE = "animal", TRIGGER = "cripple" <setingh 'ehngehu'> an animal the cripple Notice that the predicate is always the first word while the trigger is always the last word of a clause. In example a), the topic of the sentence is an animal. The addressee is presumed to already have the animal in mind. On the other hand, example b) would be used instead if the animal was mentioned for the first time. It might therefore be possible to interpret predicates as the focus; i.e., new information in the discourse that one is trying to convey about the topic (ie., the trigger). So back in example a), the predicate "cripple" is new information that is conveyed about the topic "animal", while in example b), the "cripple" is conveyed as being an "animal". If all information is new, then example a) would be used by default. The most time-stable concepts (anything most nominal and least verbal) are more inclined to be understood by the addressee as older information than less time-stable concepts. In other words, less time-stable concepts can be understood as being more prone to contain new information. This system is essentially a reflection of how I understand the work of the so called Functional Sentence Perspective linguists of the Prague School. According to these scholars, every clause has two parts; the part that refers to what the addressee is presumed to already have in mind, and the part that adds some new information. The situation in Boreanesian is further complicated when there are more than one arguments. In the examples given, there is only one argument. In situations with more than two or more arguments, different trigger situations come into play where it is possible to promote different arguments to topic by changing the trigger alone without involving the predicate. Of course, both triggers and predicates can be changed in such situations as well by nominalizing (or adding volition to) verbs. If it sounds complicated, then its because it is. So I won't bother with more complex situations here. (Unless you want me to, of course). You might be wondering why I would always consider the first word of Boreanesian clauses as predicates - especially when it seems that the first word looks a lot like a noun. The question is, what features are present that always makes the first word a predicate, and what features present that always make other words just mere arguments? Well, its difficult to tease apart verbal and nominal morphology in Boreanesian. Most words can be used as both a predicate and/or an argument. Both can also be marked by the same homophonous particle; the bound phase determiner. Lack of it marks a phrase as unbound in phase. In predicates, the bound and unbound phases are semantically correlated with the perfective and imperfective aspects respectively. In arguments, bound and unbound with definite and indefinite respectively. When applied to Boreanesian clauses, the phase of the first word always indicates the aspect of the entire clause, thereby making the first word of a clause behave more like a predicate. Note for instance that in examples a) and b), the first word is unbound so both examples would be read as imperfective. The boundness in phase of the last word says nothing about the aspect of the clause but rather, the definiteness of the trigger. How is _that_ for complexity in one area that arises from simplicity in another? What do you think? I'd like some input since everything is still quite experimental. -Kristian-