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Review of  Focus Strategies in African Languages

Reviewer: Michael W Morgan
Book Title: Focus Strategies in African Languages
Book Author: Enoch Oladé Aboh Katharina Hartmann Malte Zimmermann
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Book Announcement: 19.3451

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EDITORS: Aboh, Enoch Oladé; Hartmann, Katharina; Zimmermann, Malte
TITLE: Focus Strategies in African Languages
SUBTITLE: The Interaction of Focus and Grammar in Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic
SERIES: Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs 191
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2007

Michael W Morgan, Ishara Foundation, Bombay (Mumbai)

This book is a selection of articles based on presentations at the ''Topic and
Focus: Information Structure and Grammar in African languages'' workshop held at
Universiteit Amsterdam in December 2004. In addition to the introductory
editorial chapter, eleven articles are included. The potential audience includes
African language specialists, theoretical linguists, and typologists working on
focus. Several of the articles may be of particular interest since they show
that ''new information focus'' is often unmarked -- despite a wide array of
available focus marking devices in these very same languages --, thus
challenging notions that focus must somehow be marked.

Theories of information structure have proposed a myriad of terminological
pairs: Theme vs Rheme, Old Information vs New Information, Topic vs Comment,
Background vs Focus. The articles found in this book all examine focus, and
generally all of them agree that focus is a pragmatic category which interacts
with grammar. A working definition of focus is given by the editors in their
opening article: ''Focus refers to that part of the clause that provides the most
relevant or most salient information in a given discourse situation'' (p. 1).
While this definition differs somewhat from Lambrecht (1994: p 213 quoted in Van
Valin 2005: p. 69): ''The semantic component of a pragmatically structured
propositions whereby the assertion differs from the presupposition'', or the much
easier to remember ''focus ... is the part that is asserted in a declarative
utterance or questioned in an interrogative utterance'' (Van Valin 2005: p. 69),
there is a surprising consistency throughout this volume as to both the
terminology used and the meaning of that terminology.

Focus, being a functional category, can be manifest in a number of structural
ways: it might be indicated phonologically (by stress or tone or intonation),
morphologically or lexically (by special focus marking particles, clitics or
other markers), or syntactically (by word order and especially so-called ex-situ
strategies). Or, it might be indicated by a combination of these different
strategies. In addition, the structures used to mark focus are not necessarily
independent, but may also be related to other sentence constructions
(wh-questions, relative clauses, copular sentences). It is precisely along these
lines, outlined in the introductory chapter, that the editors have chosen to
organize the articles in this book, and each of these topics is the subject of
two or more of the chapters.

Part I is ''Focus and Prosody'' and includes a chapter by Victor Manfredi on
''Nuclear stress in Eastern Benue-Kwa (Benue-Congo)'', and one by Sabine Zerbian
on ''Investigating prosodic focus marking in Northern Sotho''. In the first of
these two ''focus and prosody'' articles, Manfredi questions standard analyses of
Bantu assuming autosegmental tonemes and templatic verb morphology, and
concludes that both devices can be dispensed with. Tone and stress should, he
argues, be handled uniformly, which he then does using data from a number of
Bantu tonal languages. Zerbian's article stands out in the volume in that it
presents evidence from production and perception experiments demonstrating a
lack of prosodic focus marking in Sepedi (Northern Sotho), a tone language. Both
these articles thereby challenge standard analyses of how focus is handled
prosodically in Bantu languages.

Part II is on ''Information structure and word order'', and includes Tom
Güldemann's ''Preverbal objects and information structure in Benue-Congo'' and
Lutz Marten's ''Focus strategies and the incremental development of semantic
representations: Evidence from Bantu''. Güldemann's article deals with the
typologically rare word order S-(auxiliary)-O-V-Other found in numerous
Benue-Congo languages (Table 1 on p. 86 lists 16 languages from 7 Benue-Congo
groups where preverbal objects are attested). He proposes that the ''status of
the object as less focal or even extrafocal, non-asserted information'' (p. 83)
may provide an alternative explanation for this word order, which heretofore was
typically explained in terms of grammaticalization scenarios. Marten's article
shows the use of both left and right periphery for expressing both topic and
focus in Bantu, and discusses how they can been dealt with within the
theoretical framework of Dynamic Syntax. Within this framework pragmatic notions
such as topic and focus are not assigned any syntactic significance, but rather
are the result of how the semantic representation is constructed. This allows
for the fact that sometimes structurally identical utterances can be given
different pragmatic readings, depending on context.

Part III is dedicated to ''Ex-situ and in-situ strategies of focus marking'' and
includes three articles: Florian Schwarz on ''Ex-situ focus in Kikuyu'', Mara
Frascarelli and Annarita Puglielli on ''Focus in the Force-Fin system:
information structure in Cushitic languages'' and Chris H. Reintges on ''Coptic
relative tenses: The Profile of a morpho-syntactic flagging device''. Schwarz's
article deals with Kikuyu, which has both in-situ and ex-situ focus
constructions. In particular, Schwarz examines the particle _ne_, which shows up
in focused phrases, fronted wh-phrases, simple copula constructions, and in the
position immediately before the verb in some declarative sentences. The fact
that focus constructions have the same syntactic pattern as wh-and other
constructions is a phenomenon we see several places in this book. The chapter by
Frasccarelli and Puglielli look at the ''Force-Fin'' system (complementizers
indicating illocutionary force and specifiers of finiteness -- tense, mood,
subject agreement -- occurring in the left periphery) in two Cushitic languages,
Somali and Afar. Focus markers in these languages are originally copular forms
(a connection we also see repeatedly in this volume) and thus focus can be
interpreted as predication, and this accounts for the connection we often see
between focus and relativization. They go on to examine focus in different types
of constructions (verb focus, yes-no questions, wh-questions), and argue that an
activated focus feature affects the illocutionary force of a sentence. Lastly in
this section, Reintges examines the morpho-syntax of relative tenses in Coptic.
He shows that these tenses appear when the focused constituent appears in-situ
but exhibits the scope and interpretation properties of a displaced (i.e.
ex-situ) constituent. As such they cannot co-occur with fronted wh-structures.

Part IV ''The inventory of focus marking devices'' includes articles by Brigitte
Reineke on ''Identificational operation as a focus strategy in Byali'' and
Katharina Hartmann and Malte Zimmermann's ''Exhaustivity marking in Hausa: A
reanalysis of the particle nee/cee''. Reineke's chapter examines the facts of
verbal and non-verbal focus in the Gur language Byali. Morphologically, focus is
marked by a focus marker, which differs for affirmative and negative focus.
These markers are related to the affirmative and negative forms of the ‘to be'
verb, and thus Reineke proposes that focus be interpreted as a biclausal: 1) the
presupposed verbal process or state (representing the background), and 2) the
identificational (‘to be') process, which is placed at the left periphery
functioning as the focus. The copular nature of the focus markings are thus
similar to what Frasccarelli and Puglielli find for Cushitic. Next, Hartmann and
Zimmermann's article reanalyzes the Hausa marker _nee_ (masculine) / _cee_
(feminine), often analyzed as focus markers. Unlike typical focus markers
_nee_/_cee_ is optional, can occur with both ex- and in-situ focus, and can
occur at a distance from the focused element. Hartmann and Zimmermann reanalyze
it as a focus-sensitive exhaustivity marker.

Finally, Part V ''Focus and related constructions'' contains two chapters:
''Narrative focus strategies in Gur and Kwa'' by Anne Schwarz and Ines Fiedler and
''Focused versus non-focused wh-phrases'' by Enoch Oladé Aboh. Schwarz and Fiedler
look at ex-situ constructions in a range of Gur and Kwa languages of Ghana (Ewe,
Akan, Lelemi, Buli and Dagbani), and find that, in the case of
non-subject-focus, these (after removing the focus constituent itself) closely
resemble narrative clauses. This resemblance is then explained by positing a
grammaticalization process from conjunction to focus marker (in four of the
languages at least) -- and (in one language, Ewe) a further development to
copula (reminiscent of what we saw in two articles above). This ''narrative
pattern'' argument is presented as an alternative to cleft or movement
approaches. In the final chapter, Aboh argues that, unlike traditional analyses
which have seen wh-phrases, due to their complementary distribution with focus
constituents, as being inherently focused, there exists in fact a distinction
between focused and non-focused wh-phrases in a number of both Afro-Asiatic and
Niger-Congo African languages. At the structural level, two focus positions are
posited, but without a semantic or pragmatic distinction between them.
Non-focused wh-question will not necessarily require a focused constituent in
the response.

Edited volumes, especially those arising from conference workshops, quite often
leave something to be desired in terms of balance and well-roundedness --
especially balance in terms of theoretical approaches and concerns. This volume,
however, passes the well balanced test; it ranges from a report on perception
and production experiments (Zerbian's chapter) to articles whose primary focus
is theoretical (perhaps half of the chapters). Theoretical argumentation ranges
from Minimalism to Dynamic Syntax to Grammaticalization. It has articles
interpreting data from single languages, articles comparing data from
genetically or areally related languages, and also articles addressing
typological issues.

Although the title might leave you to expect a bit more, the subtitle makes
clear that the articles in this book are about two and only two of the language
families of Africa. Not only are their no articles, there are no references of
any kind to any Khoisan or Nilo-Saharan language, nor any African creole, mixed
language, sign language, Indo-European language, or isolate -- these being the
other African ''families'' recorded in the Ethnologue (Gordon 2005). Still, within
the narrowed field indicated by the subtitle, balance is evidenced by the
variety of languages represented in the chapters. Articles on specific languages
presented in the book include two Afro-Asiatic languages (Reintges' on Coptic,
an Egyptian language, and Zimmermann's on Hausa, a Chadic language), and three
Niger-Congo languages (Reineke's on Byali, a non-Benue-Congo Niger-Congo
language, as well as Schwarz's on Kikuyu and Zerbian's on Northern Sotho, both
Benue-Congo / Bantu languages). In addition to these five articles on specific
languages, there are six articles dealing with groups of languages. Comparative
articles include Puglielli's on Cushitic(Afro-Asiatic), Güldemann's on
Benue-Congo, Manfredi's on eastern Benue-Kwa, Marten's on Bantu, Schwarz's on
Gur and Kwa (all Niger-Congo groups), as well as Aboh's article covering both
Afro-Asiatic and Niger-Congo. (A complete list of languages dealt with, along
with their genetic affiliation can be found in the appendix below.)

The editors in their introduction, and several of the authors in their chapters,
mention Chomsky (1971) and Jackendoff (1972) as the ''beginning'' of linguistic
interest in and the formal linguistic study of information structure. While
these two works did contribute considerably to that tradition of modern formal
linguistics, such a broad statement shows a a certain parochialism and ignorance
of the history of modern linguistics. Ignorance can have two senses: either the
sense of being unaware of something, or the sense of being aware of something
but not taking it into account. Specifically I have in mind considerable work on
information structure within the Prague School framework on FSP (Functional
Sentence Perspective), as well as work by Halliday and his students. Saying that
this volume is a bit poorer for not including any contributions from these
important schools is, however, not setting them apart for derision; their
''ignorance'' is without a doubt the majority view. That this vast wealth of
research should be lost or ignored is sad (for an interesting discussion of the
reasons for this, see (Newmeyer 2001) on the relationship of modern North
American linguistics to Prague school linguistics). Both these schools have had
important things to say about information structure, and both have had
considerable impact on how we as linguists think. That these schools of research
might not speak directly to the African languages being discussed is irrelevant;
neither do the works of Chomsky and Jackendoff which are cited as the source of
current interest in the information structure. Hopefully some future sequel
volume on focus constructions in African languages will included work being done
in these traditions (for example, Nobu Minoura's work on Malagasy Sign
language). that is my one desirata: the addition of one or two articles from
each of these theoretical frameworks to add to the many interesting and
excellent ones already included in this volume.

As with most Mouton de Gruyter volumes, the quality of editing is quite high,
and only a single typo was noticed: the box symbol at the end of the first
paragraph on page 146 should be footnote 9.

The editors, at the close of their introductory chapter, give convenient maps
of the locations of the languages discussed in the volume: 17 for Nigeria alone
(map on p. 10) and 31 for the rest of Africa (map on p. 9). Adding the languages
these two maps and subtracting the one overlap language (Gungbe) we should get
47, but in fact, all in all, a total of 57 African languages are dealt with
somewhere in the text (the total of 61 listed in the Language Index on pp. 323-4
included a couple duplicates) -- not counting Proto-Bantu, a reconstructed
language, and not counting the non-African languages with examples cited in the
text (Chamorro, French, and Italian), nor the many non-African languages
mentioned in passing.

Of these, the two families listed in the subtitle, Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic,
are represented by 7 and 50 languages, respectively.

7 Afro-Asiatic languages: + 2 Chadic (Hausa and Lele), + 3 Cushitic (Afar,
Oromo and Somali), + 1 Egyptian (Coptic) + 1 Semitic (Amharic).

50 Niger-Congo languages: + 11 non-Benue-Congo languages > 7 Gur languages
(Konni, Waama, Byali, Ditammari, Nateni, Buli, and Dagbani -- all of the
Oti-Volta group) > 1 Idomoid language (Idoma) > 1 Igboid language (Igbo)
> 1 Plateau language (Kaje) > 1 Nupoid language (Nupe) + 39 Benue-Congo
languages > 1 Atlantic language (Fulfulde) > 1 Defoid language (Yoruba) >
1 Mande language (Mandinka) > 3 Cross River languages (Ibibio, Khana and
Leggbo) > 5 Kwa languages (Ewe, Gungbe, Fon, Lelemi, and Akan) > 28 Bantoid
languages * 2 Northern: 2 Mambiloid (Northern Bantoid) languages (Mambila
and Vute) * 26 Southern, including : 3 Grassfield languages (Nen,
Bafut, and Aghem) : 1 Tikar language (Tikar) : 1 Beboid language
(Naki) : 21 Narrow Bantu languages (A: Ewondo; E: Kikuyu, Kikuria; G:
Kinga, Swahili; J: Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Luhaya, and Kinande; M: Safwa; N:
Chitumbuka, Nsenga, and Chichewa; P: Kimatuumbi, Makua; R: Umbundu; and S:
Northern Sotho, Setswana, Zulu, Xhosa, and Swati.

Chomsky, Noam (1971) Deep structure, surface structure and semantic
interpretation. In _Semantics: an interdisciplinary reader in linguistics,
philosophy and psychology_, by D.D. Steinberg and L.A. Jacobovits (editors).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 183-216.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. _Ethnologue: Languages of the World_, 15th
edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version:

Jackendoff, Ray (1972) _Semantic Interpretation in generative Grammar_.
Cambridge (MA): Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lambrecht, K. (1994) _Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus and
the Mental Representation of Discourse Referents_. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. (2001) ''The Prague School and North American
functionalist approaches to syntax'' _Journal of Linguistics_ 37: 101-126.

Van Valin, Robert D. (2005) _Exploring the Syntax-Semantics Interface_.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mike Morgan who has a PhD in Slavic linguistics (Indiana University, 1990) was
trained as an Indo-Europeanist. In addition to Indo-European, he has a wide
range of comparative (areal, historical and typological) interests. Of recent
years, research on sign languages has been a the primary focus, but he has also
undertaken research on Native American (Guarani and Quichua) and African
languages (Sepedi, xiTsonga and ChiVenda). He is currently on academic ''leave'',
acting as managing director of Ishara Foundation in Bombay (India), a non-profit
NGO dedicated to providing bilingual higher education to the Deaf.

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