The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Special talk 3/20 - Noah Constant

Speaker: Noah Constant (UMass Amherst)
Title: “Deriving the Diversity of Contrastive Topic Realizations”
Day/Time: Wednesday, March 20, 3:30-5:00pm
Location: 32-D461

Information structural notions like topic/focus, given/new and contrastive/non-contrastive have a diverse range of effects on sentence structure and pronunciation. In this talk, I look at Contrastive Topic (CT) constructions, and present a novel account of their meaning and structure that can make sense of the range of CT marking strategies attested in the world’s languages. I will cover languages that mark CT prosodically (e.g. English), those that employ a discourse particle (e.g. Mandarin), and those that have a dedicated CT position in the syntax (e.g. Czech).

A typical example of contrastive topic is given in (1). The object is pronounced with falling prosody, marking ‘the beans’ as the answer to the question of what Fred ate. The subject, on the other hand, bears a distinct rising contour, marking ‘Fred’ as a contrastive topic. The effect is to imply additional questions about what other people ate.

(1) (What about FRED? What did HE eat?)
     FRED … ate the BEANS.

I review Büring’s (2003) account of CT and point out several challenges for it—for example, it doesn’t extend to CT questions (attested in Japanese) and it fails to account for effects of CT marking on word order and prosodic phrasing. In its place, I introduce a new model of contrastive topic that posits a Topic Abstraction operator in the left periphery, and defines CT as the focus associate of this operator. In English, the abstraction operator is lexicalized as a tonal clitic to an intonational phrase. The influence of information structure on phrasing is captured via a scope-prosody correspondence constraint requiring the operator and its associate to be realized within a single prosodic domain.

The topic abstraction account is supported by a range of typologically diverse data. For one, it provides a simple way of understanding the possibility of dedicated CT positions in the syntax. Additionally, the account predicts the existence of CT morphemes that occur at a distance from the topic phrase itself, which are attested in Mandarin and Paraguayan Guaraní.