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Re: Focus, please

From:Alex Fink <000024@...>
Date:Wednesday, August 6, 2008, 17:46
On Wed, 6 Aug 2008 19:01:55 +1000, Yahya Abdal-Aziz <yahya@...> wrote:

>[...] My particular question to you >all at this point is this: > > How have you chosen to mark and interpret focus, > and how and why have these choices evolved? > >I'm well aware that this list has discussed focus in the past, but right now >I'd like to tap your collective wisdom and experience. Hopefully, your replies >will enable me to assemble a survey of practice in this area; a second phase >might explore the underlying theories.
My slice of the collective wisdom and experience is, I'm fairly sure, a narrow one. In none of my conlangs do I know anything about the diachronic origin of focus-marking patterns. I'm also uninformed about the potential range of interpretations of focus -- for all I know it's just the abstract property that some part(s) of a sentence contributing new information or being especially contrastive might have. Nonetheless, may as well start the ball rolling. In pjaukra, I think of the word orders SOV and SVO as more or less equally basic. Neither is overwhelmingly more common than the other, at least. The choice between them is influenced to a great degree by information structure: if the O is focussed it's far more likely to come after the verb, if not it's more likely to come before. Pronomial O is invariably preverbal, squaring with the unlikelihood of pronominalised referents to be new information. ForThere are other factors confounding this correlation, though, such as relative weight of the arguments and parallelism and probably even phonological sorts of factors -- I hate to say "euphony" 'cause that's such a cop-out, but something like that. For adjuncts the immediate post-verbal position is also focussing. Note that the neutral position for sentence adverbs is immediately pre-verbal, contravening the more predominant head-modifier order; this might be to keep them out of the focus position when they don't need it. In Sabasasaj, which is SOV and head-final par excellence, the post-verbal position is also focussed. Either of the at most two core arguments of the verb may be postposed, but adjuncts (which are a little uncommon) can't. This postposing is mostly found in the matrix clause, where it's unambiguous that there's something after the main verb; it's disfavoured in subordinate clauses where it's rather likely to be ambiguous with a more canonical clause structure without focussing. Sabasasaj is fond of big long towers of subordinated clauses, whose boundaries mostly go unmarked, and has no case- or role-marking on the noun, so this is more of a concern than it might otherwise be (though, mitigatingly, there's number and class marking in the verb). E.g. an unmarked Na=S1 [Nb=S2 Nc=O2 V2]=O1 V1 upon the postposition of the object in the second clause to Na=S1 [Nb=S2 V2 Nc=O2]=O1 V1 has the more canonical parse as [Na=S2 Nb=O2 V2]=S1 Nc=O1 V1 . I intend to implement in Sabasasaj some standard syntactical dodge that can be used on a subordinate clause to wrap it up a little so its boundaries are better demarcated, so that then focussing can proceed more comfortably. But I haven't decided how to do this yet. (I nearly mistakenly told you about Sabasasaj clefting instead, but whoops, that's a _topicalisation_ strategy, since the topic overwhelmingly prefers to be an argument of the main verb.) In A:jat he-Heloun (where the word order, for what it's worth, is Aux S V O from an earlier V S [nomlsd-V O]), the main burden of focus marking is borne by the prosody. Foci are marked their pitch beginning lower than the clausal intonation contour would have it. This gets a bit messy since AhH is also tonal, but the tones are register tones and their domain of association is the word, so mucking with the pitch doesn't completely smash the distinctions. I'm still working out the consequences of this system, though. Alex


David J. Peterson <dedalvs@...>
David J. Peterson <dedalvs@...>