LINGUIST List 11.667

Fri Mar 24 2000

Disc: New: Focus

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <karenlinguistlist.org>


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  1. Alex Monaghan CA, Re: 11.656, Null focused item?

Message 1: Re: 11.656, Null focused item?

Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2000 10:41:56 +0000 (GMT)
From: Alex Monaghan CA <alexcompapp.dcu.ie>
Subject: Re: 11.656, Null focused item?

colleagues,
as a non-believer in contrastive focus (which is simply narrow focus on an 
element which can be interpreted as contrasting with some other element in the 
context - just like every other case of narriw focus!), i'm interested in the 
assumptions being made by fritz newmeyer.

firstly, if it were possible to focus a null argument, how would you tell? what 
would the realisation of focus be?

secondly, in his example
Q: Who broke the dish?
A: You know who!
it seems to me that there are several possible focuses (i don't like "foci"):
YOU, or KNOW, or the whole thing. none of these corresponds to null focus.

thirdly, it seems to me that a much more null-focus-like example would be
Q: Who broke the dish?
A: Who broke the dish?
with broad focus and the same WH-question contour in both cases, but an ironic 
or exasperated tone in the second, the intended interpretation being something 
like "work it out for yourself" or "that's a stupid question" or even "who 
breaks everything around here?"

it seems, then, that in the absence of any particular narrow focus, even when 
all the elements of the message are clearly "given", we revert to broad focus 
and rely on the listener's knowledge of "givenness" to produce an appropriate 
interpretation.

this seems sensible, as a true null focus utterance would basically be saying 
"this adds no information to the context, and allows no new inferences" whereas 
focus on "given" information says "there's an inference from this information 
which you have missed". similarly, the absence of focus on "new" information 
says "this is information which may seem new but is actually already known or 
deducible": that's why we can deaccent "the great composer" in an utterance like 
"Bach was very fond of chips, but the great composer couldn't abide vinegar on 
them", and even in an utterance like "my uncle fred had cancer, but the great 
composer made a full recovery" where the speaker is the only one who knows that 
uncle fred is a great composer.

so, i'd be very surprised if languages use null focus - it has no communicative 
purpose - but i'd be interested in any data from languages other than the 
germanic and romance families.

in expectation,
		alex monaghan.
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