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THEORY: Information Structure; Topic/Comment, Focus/Background, Given/New.

From:Tom Chappell <tomhchappell@...>
Date:Tuesday, November 22, 2005, 22:43
Hello the list.

 The recent discussion about Middle Diathesis and Middle Voice reminded me of
some stuff that I've thought of but that hasn't always been really clear.

 I understand it was Trubetzkoy and his (or her?) colleagues, students, and
teachers in the "Prague school" (?) and the "Functional Sentence Perspective",
if I've got that right, who introduced the ideas of the Information Structure
of an utterance.

 More than one of the writers whose work I have read recently (on the advice of
members of this list, incidentally -- thank you all for that) have mentioned
Information Structure while discussing other things. Four who come to mind are
M.H. Klaiman ("Grammatical Voice"), Barry J. Blake ("Case"), Anna Siewierska
("Person"), and Thomas E. Payne ("Describing Morphosyntax").

  There seem to be three (3) layers of information structure:

  Topic vs. Comment --
  The topic is what the utterance is about; the comment is what is uttered about the topic.

  Focus vs. Background --
 The Focus is the "most important" or most salient or highlighted or most
foregrounded part of the utterance -- the background is the rest of the

  Given vs. New --
 The "Given" is the part of the utterance that the speaker expects the
addressee already knows or at least should already know; the "New" is the part
of the utterance that is new, or at least new relative to this discourse and
new relative to the "Given".


 In a theory-neutral description, not necessarily every sentence would have a
Topic and a Comment; not necessarily every sentence would have a Focus and a
Background; and not necessarily every sentence would have a Given and a New.

 Also, what qualifies as the Topic of a narrative, or a discourse, or a
conversational turn, may be different from what qualifies as the Topic of a
sentence or a clause. Similarly for the Focus, or the Given and New.


 Topics and Backgrounds and Givens tend to line up statistically, although they
are logically independent; similarly Comments and Foci and News tend to line up
statistically, although they are logically independent.

 Multi-sentence utterances, such as conversational turns, tend to have
persistent Topics, where several sentences in a row will have the same Topic.
After the first, many of these sentences won't even explicitly mention their
Topic -- it will make no surface appearance. Among those that do, after the
first, it will certainly be Given information, not New information.

 When a new Topic is introduced for the first time, it is usually introduced in
one of a few specific special sentence formats. When a new Topic is introduced
for the first time, it will be Focused, and it will be New. Otherwise, Topics
are either "absent" (i.e. implicit), or Given, and probably Background instead
of Focused.

 If a sentence has any New information, it is almost certain that some of the
New information will be Focused. A sentence may have several New items; and
"not have room" for more than one of them to be Focused.


 Languages with evidentials, frequently use the evidential to mark the Focused
item. So the evidential not only explicitly means "this is how I found out"; it
implicitly means "and this is the key thing".

 One kind of marker frequently discussed along with evidentiality is
"mirativity". "Mirativity" is any morphological indication that the speaker
"has not yet integrated the information he/she is uttering into his/her
worldview"; that the speaker has "an unprepared mind" for the information
marked with the mirative.

 Some linguists have suggested that "New" information is always, semantically,
"mirative" -- although it may not be marked as such.

 Some languages with evidentials have a "mirative" entry in their paradigm of
evidentials -- for instance, among the "visual evidence" markers is one for
"oh, now I can finally make it out".


 Japanese, and some Mayan languages, has a Topic "adposition" (postposition
"wa" in Japanese's case), which "overrides" -- takes the place of -- the
adposition which would mark the Subject (ga) or Direct Object (o) or Indirect
Object (ni) or any other participant.

 Tagalog, and other Philippine languages, and some Mayan languages, including
some of those mentioned in the above paragraph, has a Focus adposition
(preposition "ang" for Tagalog -- although Tagalog speakers I have spoken to
tend to think of this as a definite article), which overrides and replaces
whatever adposition would otherwise mark its role in the sentence.

 In Tagalog and the Philippine languages, the Verb's morphology is altered so
that its "Grammatical Voice" indicates which semantic role is played by its
Focus. For the Mayan languages, I believe Klaiman reported, the Grammatical
Voice of the Verb morphologically indicates the semantic role of both the Topic
and the Focus. It has to be indicated on the Verb, because the "original" case
of the noun itself has been "overwritten" by "Topic" or "Focus".

 This use of the Voice system was why Klaiman classified these languages into
his super-type "Information-Salience Voice Systems".


 If a language such as one of the Mayan languages also had evidentials -- and,
for all I know, one of them does -- it could, also, use an evidential instead
of a focus-marker on the focused element.


  [Kinds of Focus]

 Thomas E. Payne, in "Describing Morphosyntax", lists several different kinds
of focus; unfortunately, I have not memorized them yet.
 I do remember that one kind was what he called "Truth Value Focus"; this was
the type of focus in which the speaker's main thrust was to emphasize that his
entire sentence was, indeed, true.

 Siewierska, OTOH, only describes four kinds of Focus, though to be sure
neither she nor Payne claims to have exhausted them.

  She says Focus can be either contrastive or non-contrastive.

  Contrastive Focus can either contrast within the utterance or not.

  Utterance-Internal, Explicit Contrast:
  "Feed the cat the fish; feed the rabbit the lettuce."

  Utterance-External, Implicit Contrast:
  "Two U.S. Presidents have been impeached."

  Non-contrastive focus can either be a "wh"-question word, or the answer to a "wh"-question.

  "Who was the first U.S. President to be impeached?"

  "Andrew Johnson was the first U.S. President to be impeached."


  None of these three kinds of Information Structure is actually a Dichotomy of the sentence.

 If the sentence is "...A...B...C...", it may be that it is possible to think
of it as having the general, terse Topic "...A...", with "...B...C..." an
elaborate, specific Comment about "...A..."; and yet the same sentence may be
also thought to be about a more specific, more elaborated Topic "...A...B...",
with a terser Comment, "...C...".

 Likewise, if the sentence is "...X...Y...Z..."; it may be that "...X..." is
the most Given information; "...Z..." is the Newest information; and "...Y..."
is transitional between them.

 It's also possible that a sentence could have a smaller, tighter, more highly
focused, part, standing out amongst a somewhat broader area that still was more
in focus than the sentence as a whole.

 To me, that suggests that it might be worthwhile to have two degrees of
Topicness; perhaps a Topic marker and a Comment marker? And whatever isn't
marked must be halfway between? Or, instead, a BroadTopic marker and a SubTopic

 Likewise, maybe it would be worthwhile to have two degrees of Focus marking --
maybe a Foreground marker and a Background marker, with the understanding that
unmarked=midrange; or a Foreground marker and a Midground marker.

  Similarly, it might be worthwhile to have two degrees of Given vs. New marked.


 In most languages that allow speakers to pragmatically rearrange the
information in their sentences according to information salience, most speakers
arrange most sentences these ways:

  If there are a topic and a comment,
  Topic first, Comment last:

  If there are a focus and a background,
  Background first, Focus last.

  If there are given information and new information,
  Given first, New last.

 But, if they have the freedom to do so, speakers will deviate from this on
purpose when they have sentences to say to which they want addressees to pay
special attention. Also, when a speaker has to, for instance, narrate two
story-lines simultaneously -- say, for instance, the story of an ancient
battle, along with the story of the archeological dig which discovered what
happened during that battle -- they will adopt one consistent style for one
storyline, and a contrasting consistent style for the other.


  Tell me what you think.

  Tom H.C. in MI

 Yahoo! FareChase - Search multiple travel sites in one click.


Chris Bates <chris.maths_student@...>
Chris Bates <chris.maths_student@...>Referent Tracking (Was: (Re: THEORY: Information Structure; Topic/Comment, Focus/Background, Given/New.))
Chris Bates <chris.maths_student@...>
tomhchappell <tomhchappell@...>