Re: New Conlang
|From:||Ray Brown <ray.brown@...>|
|Date:||Tuesday, October 12, 2004, 17:52|
On Monday, October 11, 2004, at 08:44 , Mark J. Reed wrote:
> On Mon, Oct 11, 2004 at 11:57:18AM -0700, H. S. Teoh wrote:
>> I meant "topic" and "focus" synonymously. I suppose I'm using the
>> wrong terminology?
> They are often synonymous in English,
Yes - but the words are somewhat vaguely used in colloquial English, each
with a wide range of meanings. Certain people IME like to use 'focus'
(both as verb and noun) as a "buzz word" in pop it into just about every
> but as technical linguistic terms they are not.
True - they certainly are not.
> I only know this from reading past posts on this list,
> however. :) I personally am not familiar enough with the terms to
> explain the distinction, and I suspect it depends somwhat on which
> linguistic theolo. . .er, theory you subscribe to.
Not as far as I am aware. I dare say some odd linguistic school may use
one or other term in an esoteric way. But 'topic' is used as a
conventional label in the Philippine languages for an overtly marked NP
that exhibits some, but not all, of the typical properties of subjects. As
H. S. Teoh writes only of NPs, I wonder if he has that usage in mind.
However, by making 'topic' and 'focus' synonymous, I'm not at all sure
what he does mean.
But the normal use of the two terms in linguistics is.....
> I *believe*,
> however, that a "focus" is a new element in the conversation, appearing
> for the first time in the sentence in question, while a "topic"
> is an already-established element that may not even be explicit
> in the sentence under discussion.
That's basically it.
"That element of a sentence which is presented as already existing in the
discourse and which the rest of the sentence (the _comment_) is in some
sense 'about'. In English and in many other languages, the topic is most
often realized as the grammatical subject in the unmarked case; the choice
of a topic which is not the subject is usually accompanied by a marked
construction of some kind." [Trask]
David Crystal gives a longer explanation in his "A Dictionary of
Linguistics and Phonetics", but it amounts to the same thing.
Marking out some element of the sentence as topic is known as
_topicalization_. A common method is by bringing the topic to the
beginning of the sentence - or 'fronting'. This is common in German; this
may also be done in English. e.g.
"In the park stood a bronze statue." [topic: "in the park"]
"Yesterday we went up to London" [topic "yesterday"].
Some languages, for example Japanese & Samoan, use particles to mark the
In some schools of linguistics the preferred terms are 'theme' (= topic)
and 'rheme' (= comment). While rheme is unambiguous, 'theme' does have
other meanings in morphology and semantics; also Theme is one of the deep
cases recognized in the Case Grammar theory.
Finally, it should be noted that is not always easy to analyze sentences
into topic & comment, especially questions and commands.
"Special prominence given to some element in a sentence which represents
the most important new information in the sentence or which is contrasted
with something else. In English, focused elements are frequently marked
only by stress, though _cleft_ constructions are sometimes used. Some
other languages variously mark focused elements by the use of particles,
as in many Philippine languages, or by the use of word order, as in Basque,
in which a focused element is placed directly before the verb." [Trask]
He could have added that in Welsh focused elements are fronted.
A 'cleft' sentence in English is one where a focused element is extracted
from it normal position and set of with additional material, including an
extra verb. Perhaps actual examples will help.
Let us take the unmarked sentence: "Hugh bought a car yesterday". Welsh,
as many on the list know, is a VSO language and the unmarked sentence is:
Prynodd Huw gar ddoe.
(bought Hugh car yesterday).
(a) Focus on 'Hugh' (We know someone bought a car yesterday [Topic]. But
who was it?)
English (emphasis): *Hugh* bought a car yesterday.
English (cleft): It was Hugh who bought a car yesterday.
Welsh: Huw (a) brynodd gar ddoe. [The (a) is normally
omitted in spoken Welsh]
(b) Focus on 'a car'. (We know Hugh bought something yesterday. But what
English (emphasis): Hugh bought *a car* yesterday.
English (cleft): It was a car (that) Hugh bought yesterday.
Welsh: Car (a) brynodd Huw ddoe.
(c) Focus on 'yesterday' (We know Hugh bought a car? But when was it?)
English (emphasis): Hugh bought a car *yesterday*.
English (cleft): It was yesterday that Hugh bought a car.
Welsh: Ddoe (y) prynodd Huw gar. [The (y) is normally
omitted in spoken Welsh]
(d) If we want to focus on the verb, i.e. we know Hugh did something
concerning a car yesterday. But what was it? did he merely look at one?
Did he pay a deposit on one? Did he hire one, or what?
English can do this only by emphasis. Welsh can't very well just front the
verb; what is does is to front the verb-noun (roughly equivalent to a
'gerund') with the irregular verb 'gwneud' (to do) as an auxiliary. So:
English (emphasis): Hugh *bough*t a car yesterday.
Welsh: Prynu gar ddoe (a) wnaeth Huw.
(Buy car yesterday did Hugh).
(The Welsh examples have the added interest of initial consonant mutation
It should be noted that by no means all sentences have focus. Most are of
the unmarked sort: "Hugh bough a car yesterday"/ "Prynodd Huw gar ddoe."
On Monday, October 11, 2004, at 09:48 , Chris Bates wrote:
> To try to help, I offer the following examples from the latest language
> I'm learning:
> hau autobusa da
> this bus-DEF is
> this, its the *bus*
Y bws yw hwn.
> autobusa gorria da
> bus-DEF red-DEF is
> the bus, its *red*
Coch yw'r bws. (Unmarked: mae'r bws yn coch.)
> The topic is what the statement is in some sense about... in basque it
> occurs first. The focus is what is in some sense stressed or emphasized
> most.... in basque it immediately precedes the verb.
I agree entirely.
> As you can see, the
> two aren't always the same. They can be though:
> hau da autobusa
> this is bus-DEF
> *this*, its the bus
I think this is debatable. That sort of sentence will occur when the bus
is being pointed at or indicated. "*This* is the bus". 'This' cannot be
what we're talking about, otherwise it would be pointless pointing it out!
It seems to me that the "element of a sentence which is presented as
already existing in the discourse" is 'the bus'. The new information,
surely, is that *this* is the bus.
We should also bear in mind the caveat given by Crystal: "The
topic/comment contrast is, however, sometimes difficult to establish...."
In short, I was puzzled by H. S. Teoh's description of his new conlang
(a) topic & focus have different meanings in a linguistic context;
(b) neither topic nor focus need be a NP;
(c) the analysis of a sentence into topic/comment is not always
(d) sentences do not always have focus.
Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight,
which is not so much a twilight of the gods
as of the reason." [JRRT, "English and Welsh" ]