Project A5

3rd Phase - Focus realization, focus interpretation, and focus use from a cross-linguistic perspective

The project continues its cross-linguistic investigations of focus-semantic phenomena, with particular attention to the relation between the grammatical realisation of focus, on the one hand, and its semantic interpretation and/or pragmatic function, on the other. The project contributes to a growing trend in modern semantics to investigate semantic phenomena in non-European languages from a formal semantic perspective. As in the current funding period, the project’s empirical focus lies mostly on languages from West Africa and (South) East Asia, namely: (i.) the Yobe-state languages Ngamo, Ngizim, and Bole (West Chadic, Afro-Asiatic) (PhD researcher: Mira Grubic); and (ii.) Burmese and Chin (Tibeto-Burman, Sino-Tibetan) (PhD researcher: Pavel Ozerov). In addition, the PI continues his ongoing research on the exhaustiveness of Hungarian focus; on focus-sensitive expressions in Salish and other languages; and on the exhaustiveness of wh-questions.

Empirically, the project aims at investigating the following focus-semantic phenomena P1 to P3 in non-European languages:

  • P1. Focus realisation and focus interpretation / focus use
  • P2. Association with focus
  • P3. Realisation and interpretation of predicate-centred focus.

More generally, the project will investigate the theoretical implications of the empirical findings on focus marking, focus interpretation and association with focus in non-European languages for the theory of focus and association with focus in natural language at large.

Apart from its empirical and theoretical objectives, the project aims at developing reliable methods for cross-linguistic (focus-) semantic fieldwork. Next to the use of direct elicitations of translations and judgments on the well-formedness, truth, and felicity of utterances in context (Matthewson 2004), which are employed for answering detailed analytical questions, the project will also make use of the query methods of the questionnaire for focus-semantic data (QUISsem) from project D2 (Renans et al. 2010). Moreover, as some of the focus-semantic questions have proven to be difficult to answer on the basis of isolated utterances, the project will also employ corpus-based methods for discourse-semantic analysis in Hausa and Burmese and web-based experiments for Hausa, maybe for the first time in a major West African language.

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2nd Phase - Focus realization, focus interpretation, and focus use from a cross-linguistic perspective

Despite years of research on focus semantics there are still open questions:

  • What exactly is the meaning contribution of focus? Does it just lie in the presupposition of the givenness of the background predicate, or does it additionally induce contextual relevant alternatives; or does focusing even lead to exhaustive quantification over these alternatives?
  • Can all parts of the sentence be equally focused, or are there categorical restrictions? Why is e.g. verb focus realized differently in many different languages, or not grammatically realized at all?
  • How do the focus structure of a sentence and focus sensitive expressions like Q-adverbials and focus particles interact during semantic interpretation?

The aim of the project is to get a better understanding of the meaning contribution of focus in general and of the connection between the grammatically marked realization of focus and its interpretation and pragmatic use, by a formal semantic analysis of different focus-relevant phenomena mainly from non-European languages. The languages under investigation can be divided into African languages (Gur, Kwa, Chad, Bantu) and Southeast Asian languages (Thai, Lao (Tai-Kadai), Vietnamese (Mon-Khmer), Chinese (Sino-Tibetan)), both groups mainly consisting of tone languages. The aim of the comparison between European and non-European languages is to show how far existing semantic analysis of focus can be used to analyze the latter. On the other hand, it is investigated how newly documented focus phenomena from semantically insufficiently studied languages require a modification of existing analyses. The project devotes itself to 3 main issues:

P1. The different grammatical realization of focus and possibly associated semantic or pragmatic differences.

This project area examines the question of the number and kind of semantically different focus types. In particular, it will be examined, based on a broad empirical basis, whether languages with more than one kind of grammatical focus realization exhibit a strict 1:1 relationship between marked focus realization and semantically stronger focus interpretation, or whether a marked focus realization is due to discourse-semantic, i.e. pragmatic factors. Such a discourse-semantic factor could for example be the speaker expectation of low discourse expectability of the focused constituent for the hearer.

P2. The (im)possibility of focus realization on verbal predicates, in contrast to term focus, and the interpretation of verb specific focus markers.

This project area examines how verbal predicates as semantically unsaturated expressions differ from nominal terms with respect to their focusability. In particular, the project aims to clarify whether different terms for verb specific focus marking in African tone languages - like event, predication, polar, or auxiliary focus - have the same semantic meaning, or whether these terms actually refer to semantically different concepts. In a second step, the semantic contribution of these verb specific focus markers is compared to the interpretation of Verum, auxiliary and narrow verb focus in European intonation languages, to identify differences and similarities. The study ultimately also aims at a better understanding of Verum and auxiliary focus in this language group.

P3. The association of adverbial quantifiers and focus particles with focus.

This project area is devoted to the influence of focus on the interpretation of adverbial quantifiers and focus particles. It is investigated whether the close relationship observed in intonation languages between Q-adverbs and focus on the one hand, and focus particles and focus on the other hand is also found in non-European tone languages. It will also be explored how the syntactic distribution of focus particles provides an indication of their meaning. Finally, the association behavior of different focus particles, such as also (additive) and only (exclusive) will be analyzed from a crosslinguistic perspective.

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Principal Investigators

  • Prof. Dr. Malte Zimmermann

Former Staff Members

  • Dr. Thuan Tran
  • Dr. Daniel Hole
  • Agata Renans
  • Mira Grubic
  • Kilu von Prince
  • Pavel Ozerov

Student Assistants

  • Simone Pfeil
  • Eva-Maria Saur


February 2014 Workshop Zimmermann, M., Tran, T., Renans, A. & Grubic, M.: Focus Sensitive Expressions from a Cross-Linguistic Perspective An ISF workshop organized by Yael Greenberg (Bar-Ilan University) and Malte Zimmermann (Potsdam University), will be held at Bar-Ilan University on 3--5 February, 2014. The workshop is co-financed by University Potsdam. Download
September 2013 Talk Renans, A.: Types of Common Nouns in Ga Countability Workshop, Düsseldorf.
September 2013 Poster Renans, A.: The Semantics of Common Nouns in Ga and their Interaction with Exclusive Particles SuB 18, Vitoria-Gasteiz.
July 2013 Poster Renans, A.: Functions of Exclusives in Ga, Semantics and Pragmatics session ICL 19, Geneva.
June 2013 Talk Tran, T.: Scalar Particles in Vietnamese The Twenty-sixth Paris Meeting on East Asian Linguistics, Paris.
March 2013 Talk Renans, A.: Common Nouns in Ga (Kwa, Niger-Congo): Mass, Count and More ACAL 44, Washington.
November 2012 Talk Tran, T.: An Information Structure-based Analysis of Vietnamese 4th International Conference on Vietnamese Studies, Hanoi.
December 2011 Talk Renans, A.: Projective Behaviour of Nur - Quantitative Experimental Research 18th Amsterdam Colloquium.
September 2011 Talk Grubic, M.: Kapa as an end-of-scale marker in Bole and Ngizim (West Chadic) SuB 16, Urtecht.
August 2011 Talk Grubic, M.: On the Projection Behaviour of Freely Associating mod’- (only) in Bole (West Chadic) ESSLLI 2011: Workshop on Projective Meaning, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
August 2011 Poster Renans, A.: Projective Meaning of Only - Evidence from Polish ESSLLI 2011: Workshop on Projective Meaning, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
May 2011 Talk Grubic, M.: The West-Chadic particle kapa as an end-of-scale marker SULA-Bar, Manchester.
November 2010 Talk Grubic, M.: An interface account of focus realization in Ngamo (West Chadic). BAALL's First Conference on Afroasiatic Grammar, Paris.
October 2010 Talk Ozerov, P.: Being 'highlighted': the case of pɛ: in Colloquial Burmese. 43rd International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics (ICSTLL43), Lund.
September 2010 Talk Grubic, M. & Zimmermann, M.: Conventional and free association with focus in Ngamo (West Chadic). Sinn und Bedeutung 15, Universität des Saarlandes, Saarbrücken.
August 2010 Talk Karvovskaya, L.: Not only about "only": focus particles as endangered species in Kildin Saami. 11th International Congress for Finno-Ugric Studies, Piliscsaba.
June 2010 Guest Talk Zimmermann, M. & Grubic, M.: Focus Realisation and Association with Focus in Ngamo (Chadic). Eberhard-Karl-Universität Tübingen.
June 2010 Talk Grubic, M. & Haida, A.: Quasi, Free, and Conventional Focus Association. Evidence from Chadic for a Reclassification of Some Operators. International Conference SFB 632 "Information Structure", Potsdam.
June 2010 Guest Talk Zimmermann, M. & Grubic, M.: Focus Realisation and Association with Focus in Ngamo (Chadic). IMS, Universität Stuttgart.
June 2010 Poster Karvovskaya, L.: Not only about "only": focus particles and the diagnostics of language attrition. 2nd Patras International Conference of Graduate Students in Linguistics (PICGL 2).
February 2010 Talk Zimmermann, M. & Grubic, M.: The expression of indefiniteness in Hausa. 32. Jahrestagung der DGfS, AG 4 "Indefiniteness Crosslinguistically", Berlin.
January 2010 Talk Grubic, M. & Zimmermann, M.: Focus-sensitivity in Ngamo (West Chadic). London-Potsdam Meeting, London.
September 2009 Talk Koch, K. & Zimmermann, M.: Focus-sensitive operators in Nɬeʔkepmxcin (Thompson Salish). Konferenz Sinn und Bedeutung 14, Universität Wien.
September 2009 Talk Zimmermann, M. & Drenhaus, H.: How exhaustive are you? An ERP study on it-Clefts, only-Foci, and Scalar Implicature. Colloque de Syntax et Semantique à Paris (CSSP) 8. Université Sorbonne, Paris.
July 2009 Lecture Hole, D. & Zimmermann, M.: Focus Marking, Focus Interpretation, and Focus Sensitivity. European Summer School in Logic, Language and Information ESSLI, Bordeaux.
March 2009 Talk Chiarcos, C., Fiedler, I., Grubic, M., Haida, A., Hartmann, K., Ritz, J., Schwarz, A., Zeldes, A. & Zimmermann, M.: Information Structure in African Languages: Corpora and Tools. EACL 2009 Workshop on Language Technologies for African Languages, Athens.
March 2009 Talk Grubic, M. & Zimmermann, M.: Focus-driven Inversion: The Position of Postverbal Subjects in Tangale (West Chadic). Potsdam-Leipzig Meeting, Lutherstadt Wittenberge.
March 2009 Talk Hole, D.: Movement and scope-taking with Chinese EVEN/ONLY foci and NPIs. International Workshop "Comparing Grammars"/FU Berlin.
March 2009 Workgroup Haida, A., Onéa, E. & Zimmermann, M.: Arbeitsgruppe AG 9 Focus Marking Strategies and Focus Interpretation. 31. DGfS-Jahrestagung, Universität Osnabrück.
March 2009 Talk Haida, A., Onéa, E. & Zimmermann, M.: Focus Marking Strategies and Focus Interpretation. Workshop-Einleitung bei der 31. DGfS-Jahrestagung, Universität Osnabrück.
February 2009 Talk Hole, D.: Focus particles reloaded. DGfS Osnabrück.
January 2009 Guest Talk Zimmermann, M.: The Semantics of Comparative Constructions in Hausa. Kolloquium, SFB 441, Eberhard-Karls-Universität, Tübingen.
December 2008 Talk Zimmermann, M.: Predicate Focus, Verum Focus, Verb Focus: Similarities and Differences. Workshop Potsdam-London Information Structure Meeting, Universität Potsdam.
November 2008 Talk Zimmermann, M.: Clefts in (South) East Asian: A cross-linguistic comparison of Burmese, Japanese and Chinese. Cleft Workshop, SFB 632 ZAS, Berlin.
November 2008 Talk Hole, D. & Zimmermann, M.: Predicate Focus, Verum Focus, Verb Focus: Similarities and Differences. Workshop on Predicate Focus, Universität Potsdam/SFB 632, Potsdam.
September 2008 Talk Truckenbrodt, H., Zimmermann, M. Grubic, M. & Danja, B.A.: Focus and Word Order in Tangale. Konferenz Syntax of the World’s Languages III, Freie Universität, Berlin.
September 2008 Guest Talk Zimmermann, M.: Comments on Nancy C. Kula’s Post-verbal focus in Bantu: In Situ, IAV and Final Focus. Workshop on interface-based approaches to Information Structure, UCL, London.
September 2008 Workshop Hole, D. & Zimmermann, M.: TEAL-5 (Theoretical East Asian Linguistics 5) Including Special Session: ‘Word-order variation and universal grammar – areal, dialectal and information-structural perspectives’. Universität Potsdam, Deutschland. Download
May 2008 Talk Hole, D.: Towards a prolific theory of focus particles. UCL. Zimmermann, M. Strategies of Topic Marking in Chadic (Afro-Asiatic).
February 2008 Talk Zimmermann, M.: Strategies of Topic Marking in Chadic (Afro-Asiatic). Workshop 30. DGfS-Jahrestagung, Universität Bamberg.