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Topics and foci/focuses... Wow, now I get it!!!

From:Oskar Gudlaugsson <hr_oskar@...>
Date:Sunday, May 6, 2001, 1:43
I've been familiar with the concepts _topic_ and _focus_ for some time now,
but never saw much importance in it. "Metagrammatical pedant trivia", I
used to think to myself :p

... And now I started acquainting myself with Japanese grammar, where
topics are clearly marked by the morphology. And I've just realized that,
hey, this is actually really big. I've been thinking back to all the other
languages I know (including my native lang), and I realize topic marking of
all kinds is popping up all the time. Topic vs focus is apparently
something essential in human communication.

So why isn't it covered much in our traditional grammar? Because Western
languages don't generally mark it in a distinctive morphological manner.
It's largely done by prosodics and word order. But this got me looking at
our everyday spoken language, where topic marking is apparently more
lexical than we'd suspect... Or so it seems to me; some examples:


So what did he do?
- He  like  came over to me and...

What's that "like" doing? Looks like topic marking to me.

Then what happened?
- Then everything  just  happened real' fast and...

And there the "just" seems to me to have no role other than to mark
the "then + [events]" as the topic.


In Icelandic the word "just" is also used colloquially to mark topic; I
don't know if it's a calque of the English usage, or just a coincidence:

Hvað gerði hann svo?
What  did   he  then?

- Hann  bara  fór.
   He   just  left.

I should note that "bara" has no temporal meaning like "just" does,
so "Hann bara fór" is not saying that he left a very short time ago. In
written/formal language, the answer should be "Hann fór", without the
supposedly "meaningless" word "bara" (because the prescriptivists simply
can't determine its function, it gets branded as meaningless).


 Qu'est  que    tu     fais   là bas?
What is  that you [sg]  do  over-there?

- Moi,   je  regarde  le  ciel.
   I,    I   look-at  the sky.

This is more obvious and less interesting, I guess. Worth mentioning none-
the-less. The French generally repeat the topic somehow, such as in the
well known quote of one of a King Louis something, "L'état, c'est moi."


Now that I understood this whole thing better I realized that Cantonese has
a morphological topic marker, "le". I always used to find that particle
really cool and useful, while I couldn't determine its grammatical function
very well:

(Using Yale romanization, but I don't mark tones - in learning Cantonese I
never memorized the specific tone setting of specific words; but then,
Cantonese-speakers themselves can't really identify and correctly note the
tones of their words, so anyway...)

 Dim gai hou   do   yan    mou      ye    sik        a?
   Why   good many people have-not thing  eat [emphatic particle]?

 (Why do so many people starve?)

- Yan wai   le,     yau  yan   sik  tai  do    ye.
  Because [topic], have people eat  too many  thing.

 (Because, there are people who eat too much.)

Just my 5c worth of thoughts,

PS Feel free to pat me on the head for inventing the wheel here :) I do it
all the time, anyway! :p :p


Nik Taylor <fortytwo@...>
Amanda Babcock <langs@...>
BP Jonsson <bpj@...>
Raymond Brown <ray.brown@...>