When subjects behave like objects
An analysis of the merging of S and O in Sentence-Focus Constructions across languages
This paper is concerned with the cross-linguistic expression of a universal information-structure category called the ‘thetic’ or ‘sentence-focus’ (SF) category. The SF category differs from the unmarked ‘predicate-focus’ (PF) or ‘categorical’ category by the absence of a topic-comment relation between the subject and the predicate and it differs from the marked ‘argument-focus’ (AF) category by the absence of a focus-presupposition relation between an argument and an open proposition. The theoretical issue explored here is the question of the relationship between the form and the function of SF constructions, i.e. the question of motivation in grammar. I argue that the form of SF constructions is motivated by the need to distinguish them minimally from corresponding PF constructions. The form and interpretation of a given SF sentence is thus determined not only by the syntagmatic relations among its constituents but also by the paradigmatic relation between the SF sentence as a whole and the corresponding PF sentence, i.e. in terms of a systemic opposition. Since the distinctive property of SF sentences is the absence of a topic-comment relation between the subject and the predicate, SF marking entails the marking of the subject as a non-topic. I show that across languages this non-topic marking of SF subjects tends to be done via those morphosyntactic, prosodic, or behavioral features which are normally associated with the focal objects of PF constructions. The analysis confirms the necessity to treat the pragmatic relations topic and focus on a par with the grammatical relations subject and object and the semantic roles agent and patient. In seeking to explain the form-function fit in SF constructions in terms of the structuralist notion of paradigmatic opposition the analysis challenges both functional and formal generative approaches to grammar.
Published online: 16 March 2001
Cited by 58 other publications
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