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Review of  The Expression of Information Structure

Reviewer: Jacopo Torregrossa
Book Title: The Expression of Information Structure
Book Author: Manfred Krifka Renate Musan
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 24.1765

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‘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 structure.

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 counterparts.

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 sentence.

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.