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LINGUIST List 24.1765

Mon Apr 22 2013

Review: Cognitive Science; Linguistic Theories: Krifka & Musan (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 10-Mar-2013
From: Jacopo Torregrossa <jacopo.torregrossaunivr.it>
Subject: The Expression of Information Structure
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-3563.html

EDITOR: Manfred Krifka
EDITOR: Renate Musan
TITLE: The Expression of Information Structure
SERIES TITLE: The Expression of Cognitive Categories [ECC] 5
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jacopo Torregrossa, University of Verona

‘The Expression of Information Structure’, in De Gruyter Mouton’s ‘Expression
of Cognitive Categories’ series, investigates information structure (IS,
henceforth) from very different perspectives. From a theoretical standpoint,
it introduces and defines the main categories involved in the structuring of
utterances according to informational criteria (e.g., focus, topic,
contrastive topic). On the empirical side, its main purposes are to provide a
cross-linguistic analysis of how these categories are encoded in sentence
grammar, to point out how they affect the production and comprehension
processes, and to raise some methodological issues concerning experimental
work on these topics. The book consists of thirteen contributions by
specialists. Each chapter offers a detailed state-of-the-art survey of
different aspects of IS. Therefore, the book on the whole will be useful to
guide undergraduate and graduate students through the vast IS-related
literature. It could also interest researchers in the field, as a source of
empirical data from different domains and a starting point for further
analyses. In what follows, I first describe the book’s structure, with a brief
summary of each chapter, and then comment on the volume as a whole.

In ‘Information Structure: Overview and linguistic issues’, the editors
Manfred Krifka and Renate Musan outline the main concepts around which most of
the following contributions revolve. In particular, they deal with the
categories of focus, topic and givenness. Among the different approaches to
their interpretation, the authors concentrate on those theories that consider
informational categories as referring to how information is ‘packaged’ in
sentence structure according to the interlocutors’ information state (see
Chafe 1976). Since they do not trigger any truth-conditional effects, these
informational categories relate to pragmatic processing, or in more technical
terms, to common ground management. ‘Focus’ has the function of evoking a set
of alternatives. The integration of this notion into a discourse model based
on the hierarchy of questions formulated by Roberts (1996) has the advantage
of providing a uniform account for the so-called ‘semantic’ and ‘pragmatic’
uses of focus. ‘Topic’ is defined in terms of ‘aboutness’. More specifically,
it denotes an entity under which the information expressed by the comment is
stored. Contrary to topic and focus, ‘givenness’ is not a discrete category,
being identified as a feature that, marking a certain expression, indicates
the degree to which its denotation is present in the immediate common ground.
Besides these basic notions, the authors introduce the category of
‘delimitation’, which subsumes the informational notions ‘contrastive topic’
and ‘frame setter’. Simplifying the authors’ proposal, these can be
characterized as derived units, stemming from the interaction of topic and
focus. The following six chapters provide empirical support for the linguistic
relevance of these categories, each dealing with a different language
(Chinese, English, French, Georgian, Hungarian and Japanese). Given the wide
range of data considered for each language, I cannot do justice to every
contribution. Instead, I present a selection of linguistic phenomena to show
the different ways in which informational notions can be encoded in sentence

In ‘The information structure of Chinese’, Daniel Hole shows that focused
constituents appear in different syntactic environments, such as
cleft-sentences (i.e., ‘shí [XP]FOC de’ constructions that involve
exhaustivity) or in the scope of focus-sensitive particles in the form of
either adverbial particles preceding a focus within a VP or ‘ad-focus-phrase’
particles with the associated focus preceding the VP. Furthermore, they
trigger prosodic effects interacting with the realization of lexical tones.
Topics can appear both in the sentential left periphery and in clause-internal
position between the subject and the verb. In the former case, two (or more)
topics are allowed and a part-whole relation often holds between the lower and
the higher.

In ‘The information structure of English’, Susanne Winkler accounts for two
alternative ‘optimal’ ways to realize informational partitioning in English
sentences. In unmarked SVO utterances, the topic-focus structure is realized
by the interaction between positional parameters (topic tends to precede
focus) and prosodic factors (focus bears the nuclear accent and given material
is deaccented). On the other hand, the use of non-canonical word order has the
function of marking a certain constituent as topic, focus or given. In
particular, the author analyzes the interpretation associated with left and
right dislocations, inversion structures, clefts and gaps.

In ‘The information structure of French’, Wolfgang Klein outlines an
alternative model for the interpretation of IS with regard to French. He
argues that sentences are structured into a ‘core’ and an ‘expansion’. The
former consists of the verb together with the arguments expressed as weak
elements (i.e., pronouns and clitics) and has the function of ‘being about’ a
contextually relevant situation, which is thus the topic. On the other hand,
clefts and dislocations (left or right) play the role of expanding the core in
different ways, e.g., by adding descriptive information about one (or even
more than one) of the arguments involved in the situation or by characterizing
the situation, e.g., as having a certain entity as subject/agent or
object/theme or situated in a certain place, etc.

In ‘The information structure of Georgian’, Rusudan Asatiani and Stavros
Skopeteas claim that Georgian exhibits mixed VO and OV behaviour. This
corresponds to two different syntactic realizations of focused constituents,
either in a left adjacent position to the finite verb or in the postverbal
domain when the verb undergoes fronting. On the prosodic side, focus triggers
the insertion of a prosodic boundary at its left edge in both cases. As for
topics, they are encoded in a dedicated position within the clausal left
periphery. Interestingly, the analysis of the data is framed in the
theoretical attempt to establish whether informational notions are encoded by
morphosyntactic features active in the computation or at the interface of
syntax with the external systems of use. The authors argue in favour of the
latter option.

In ‘The information structure of Hungarian’, Beáta Gyuris explores the
Hungarian left edge, which plays a crucial role in encoding focus and topic.
The focus position in the C-domain of the sentence is targeted by
information-focused constituents endowed with an exhaustive interpretation and
by foci associated with the operator ‘only’ (and crucially not by those
associated with operators like ‘also’ and ‘even’). Therefore, it expresses
exhaustive identification of the associated constituent. The topic position
precedes the focus and the distributive quantifier positions, and can host
both aboutness topics and contrastive topics. The latter differ from the
former in allowing for the insertion of a clause-internal resumptive element
and tend to be pronounced with a rising contour.

In ‘The information structure of Japanese’, Reiko Vermeulen describes the
interpretational effects triggered by the use of scrambling and wa-marking in
Japanese. The former serves to mark the givenness status of the moved
constituent and, as a consequence, to establish the correspondence between the
focus in preverbal position and the sentence nuclear accent. As for the
latter, the author provides a complete inventory of its different uses, from
the encoding of topichood (either contrastive or not) to the expression of
contrastive interpretations. It is worth noticing that, according to
Vermeulen’s analysis, contrastive topics can appear both in-situ and in
left-peripheral position. In the latter case, they exhibit specific
phonological and syntactic behaviour (i.e., a rising contour and sensitivity
to island constraints) distinguishing them from their non-contrastive

The following five chapters investigate whether informational categories have
an impact on comprehension and production. In particular, they discuss the
results of corpus studies and experimental research on native speakers
(children and adults) and L2 learners.

In ‘The empirical investigation of information structure’, Stavros Skopeteas
describes different methods to determine under which contextual conditions a
certain structure is used felicitously. Corpus based analyses can indicate the
degree of correlation between the use of a specific linguistic structure (or
expression) and the occurrence of a certain discourse context. The same kind
of evidence, however, may be offered by production experiments testing
speakers’ preference for a specific informational configuration in an
experimentally designed discourse context. In comparison to corpus studies,
this has the advantage of allowing researchers to control for variables that
might come into play. Finally, a third method can complement the results of
these two by exploring the speakers’ intuitions of contextual felicity. In
this last case, data reveal a gradience of acceptability which does not emerge
from the analysis of spoken production.

In ‘The prosodic investigation of information structure’, Aoju Chen deals with
methodological issues in setting up an experiment investigating the prosodic
correlates of informational categories. The author provides detailed
information on each stage of the experimental procedure, including choice and
design of the speech materials, phonemic segmentation, labelling for accent
placement, accent type and phrasing, and validation of the analysis by means
of observation of the most significant phonetic and phonological parameters.
The last section provides an introductory tutorial on the use of PRAAT
phonetic software.

In ‘The psychology of information structure’, Heidi Wind Cowles reviews
several studies dealing with how IS influences language comprehension and
production. Neurolinguistic (mainly ERP studies) and psycholinguistic
(eye-tracking and speeded probe recognition tasks) investigations suggest that
topic and focus are associated with a high degree of accessibility of their
referents, as shown by their effect on pronoun antecedent selection.
Specifically for focus, it seems that violations of the question-answer
congruence causes delays in lexical semantic interpretation and information
integration. Furthermore, focus guides the interpretation of ambiguous
ellipsis and sluicing structures and of reduced relative clause sentences. For
production, the author’s review claims that what is introduced as a topic by
means of an about-phrase tends to appear in early positions in the following

In ‘The acquisition of information structure’, Christine Dimroth and Bhuvana
Narasimhan argue that informational notions play a significant role in the
structuring of children L1 and adult L2 learners’ production beginning from
very early stages of acquisition. This does not imply, however, that learners
are able to encode these categories in sentence and discourse structure in a
target-like way. For example, children’s sentences are built upon the
given-new distinction, but their preference for encoding new information first
does not reflect adult input. Likewise, although informational categories are
already part of the adult L2 learners’ cognitive system (as witnessed by their
L1 production), there is ample evidence that even near-native speakers do not
have a full mastery of syntax/discourse interface phenomena. Based on these
observations, the authors provide some considerations on the different
principles and mechanisms underlying L1 and L2 acquisition.

In ‘Computation and modeling of information structure’, Manfred Stede explains
how research on IS has contributed to the development of increasingly refined
computational models for the comprehension and production of written and
spoken language. During sentence processing, an ideal automatic text
understanding system should be able to build a semantic representation of the
linguistic input and, to this purpose, to assign pronominal reference.
Therefore, part of the research in this field aims to formulate algorithms for
pronoun resolution on the basis of which semantic/pragmatic and syntactic
features (e.g., familiarity status, salience, linear precedence in the
structure, grammatical function) make a certain linguistic expression the most
suitable candidate as the antecedent of a pronoun. On the side of language
generation, sentence planners compare different possible realizations (i.e.,
word order configurations, choices of referring expressions, phonological
patterns) of a single logical form, and give as output the one that best fits
a given discourse context.

Finally, in ‘Information structure and theoretical models of grammar’, Ingo
Reich brings the reader back to theory and discusses whether informational
notions such as topic, focus, and givenness should be considered categories of
grammar. In the long-standing debate on the nature of focus, whether focus
triggers truth-conditional effects or is just the epiphenomenon of givenness,
is a contentious issue. Among the truth-conditional approaches, the semantic
contribution of focus has been analyzed in different ways by the exponents of
the alternative semantics framework on the one hand, and of the structured
meaning approach on the other. In particular, the two theoretical approaches
provide different analyses of the phenomena of island (in)sensitivity of
association with focus and of second occurrence focus. Finally, Reich deals
with the notion of ‘contrastive topic’, showing that it affects scope
interactions and that its interpretation results in a set of questions, as
argued by Büring (1997).

As noted, Krifka and Musan’s volume reflects a collaborative effort among
distinguished researchers in the field. IS is investigated from different
standpoints ranging from the theoretical definitions of informational
categories to the empirical analysis of their linguistic and psychological
correlates. Each contribution offers a detailed state-of-the-art survey of the
research questions, methodologies and findings related to different aspects of
work on IS. Due to the vast number of topics discussed, the exposition can
sometimes be dense, especially for readers approaching the field for the first
time, even if in general the book is very readable and clearly organized.

Its structure is straightforward, with a theoretical introduction,
cross-linguistic analyses, an investigation of different empirical domains and
a last theoretical chapter which, building on the previous contributions,
provides some formalizations and shows how IS enters into the theory of
grammar. In particular, the introduction gives coherence to the book as a
whole, because most of the following chapters are based upon the definitions
that it offers. The fact that some papers (e.g., Klein’s) deviate from the
model outlined in the introduction does not undermine the overall
cohesiveness. Rather, it reflects openness to alternative approaches and may
lead the reader to explore new research possibilities.

In the last years, published literature on IS has proliferated and no single
book can cover all the relevant aspects. ‘The Expression of Information
Structure’ discusses the most important issues and offers a rich overview of
the most significant studies. The discussion could be extended in several
directions. From the theoretical point of view, other informational categories
could be included, such as ‘contrast’, which has been shown to be an
autonomous informational unit on par with topic and focus (Vallduvì/Vilkuna
1998). Also included could be the analysis of how the components of language
interact with each other for the expression of IS. Empirically, the data set
could be enlarged to encompass other languages, such as Spanish and Italian,
which rely on specific linguistic means to encode IS. Crucially, however, the
volume provides the reader with useful methodological tools to undertake these
kinds of investigation.

Büring, Daniel. 1997. The Meaning of Topic and Focus -- The 59th Street Bridge
Accent. London: Routledge.

Chafe, Wallace. 1976. Givenness, contrastiveness, definiteness, subjects,
topics and point of view. In C.N. Li (Ed.), Subject and Topic, 27-55. New
York: Academic Press.

Roberts, Craige. 1996. Information Structure in discourse: Towards an
integrated formal theory of pragmatics. In: J-H. Yoon & A. Kathol (Eds.), Ohio
State University Working Papers in Linguistics, 49. Papers in Semantics,
91-136. Columbus: The Ohio State University.

Vallduvì, Enric & Maria Vilkuna. 1998. On rheme and contrast. In P. Culicover
& L. McNally (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics. The Limits of Syntax, 29, 79-108.
San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Jacopo Torregrossa is a post doc student at the University of Verona (Italy).
His research focuses on the syntactic and phonological encoding of information
structure in Romance languages. In particular, he is currently involved in a
project exploring the prosodic correlates of fronted foci in different Romance
languages. He is also interested in the syntactic and phonological development
in L1 and L2 acquisition.
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