[Lingtyp] Topic and focus markers with other functions

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at shh.mpg.de
Sat Aug 3 05:44:46 UTC 2019

Eva's post raises the interesting general question whether markers that 
occur under two necessary conditions should be said to mark both of 
these simultaneously:

– Do Quechua markers like -mi or -si "mark" only evidentiality, or do 
they also "mark" focus (because they always occur on the focused 
constituent and thus serve to identify it)?

– Do ("optional") ergative markers in Jaminjung "mark" the nominal only 
for ergative role, or do they also "mark" focus (because they are 
generally restricted to focused nominals and thus serve to identify the 
nominals as fucused)?

– Do case flags in "split" systems, like the preposition a+ in Spanish 
(which is generally restricted to animate nominals), "mark" only the 
syntactic role, or do they also "mark" animacy?

– Do plural markers that occur only when the nominal is definite or 
animate only mark "plural", or do they also "mark" definiteness or 
animacy? (This often happens in creole languages, see 

Linguists often say that these markers have one "function", and the 
other factor that plays a role in their occurrence is a "condition", but 
I often find these difficult to distinguish. Couldn't one say 
(conversely) that the Jaminjung nominal focus marker is restricted in 
its distribution in that it only occurs when the nominal is a 
(transitive) agent?

(In other words, couldn't one say that in cases of this sort, the marker 
has two functions simultaneously? – Sorry, this is leading away from 
Fritz Newmeyer's original post.)


On 02.08.19 22:10, Eva Schultze-Berndt wrote:
> Quite apart from the problems of defining focus (on which I'm less 
> sceptical than the sources Eitan cites), in some of the categories 
> that have been cited the literature as focus markers the question 
> arises whether they really *mark* focus, or are rather (i) attracted 
> to a focused constituent, or (ii) focus plays a role in their 
> distribution.
> Regarding (i), I'm not a Quechuanist, but have had discussions with 
> colleagues who are, and it is by no means clear that everyone 
> considers evidentials in these languages as also marking focus, rather 
> than as attaching to the focused constituent.
> Regarding (ii), I have worked on "optional" ergativity, and would not 
> consider ergative marking associated with focus as "marking" focus. In 
> any of the types of "classical" split ergative system, with a split, 
> say, between humans and non-humans, or non-past and past, we would not 
> consider the ergative case as a marker of the categories of 
> "non-human" or "past" – either because there is a clear segmental 
> marking already (past), or because there is no marking of the category 
> at all outside agents (non-human). So if ergative case only occurs on 
> focused agents (at least probabilistically – such systems often don't 
> seem to be entirely categorical), recognisable as focused through 
> prosody and context, why would we consider the ergative as a focus marker?
> Eva
> -------------------------------------------------------
> Eva Schultze-Berndt
> Professor of Linguistics
> Linguistics and English Language
> School of Arts, Languages and Cultures
> The University of Manchester
> Oxford Road
> M13 9PL
> Manchester, UK
> E-mail: eva.schultze-berndt at manchester.ac.uk

Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de)
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10	
D-07745 Jena
Leipzig University
Institut fuer Anglistik
IPF 141199
D-04081 Leipzig

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