Throughout the course of daily communication, people of all walks of life find it necessary to highlight some part of their speech, drawing the attention of the listener to it. This can be done via morphology, intonation contours, syllabic stress, or, as is of interest in this essay, syntactic means.
Before examining specific languages, a discussion of two important terms in information structure management must be had—these being topic and focus. A topic is a discourse-level constituent that “sets the stage” for the predication of the sentence. This can be the subject of the sentence (which is a sentence-level constituent), as it typically is in English, or it can be used to give context to the predication of the sentence. Below in (1) is an example of the later in Classical Chinese.
(1) Yenhui ye yi zhi ren ye
Yenhui TOP benevolence GEN person PTCL
'Yenhui, he's a benevolent person.'1
This is also seen in English's left-dislocation.2
(2) a. (Original Sentence) I'll never be able to give up coffee.
b. (Left-Dislocation) Coffee, I'll never give it up.3
This is different than focus, which is the drawing of attention to a constituent in a non-topical manner, typically to serve some sort of contrastive purpose. This can be seen well with word order in Klamath, a language with what has been described as “pragmatic” word order. In Klamath, when there is surprising information that the speaker wants to highlight, the speaker fronts the constituents to the beginning of the utterance. For the following example, it is important to know that five sacks of beads is a large amount and that Weasel being able to produce as much as Marten is surprising, hence their respective frontings.
(3) t'on'ip wilisik yamnas sael Ɂena
5 sack bead Marten take
'Marten takes five sacks of beads'
c'asqay c'is ton'i panti wilisik yamnas Ɂena
Weasel also 5 sack bead take
'Weasel takes five sacks of beads too.'4
English also has a start of sentence focus, known as clefting, where an argument is taken to the front of the original sentence and the rest of the original sentence forms a relative clause that is subordinate to the argument that was taken out of the original sentence.
(4) a. (Original Sentence) Alex paints figurines in the afternoon.
b. (Clefted Sentence) It's Alex who paints figurines in the afternoon.
Note that with both focus and topic, the arguments in focus tend to come at the beginning of the sentence. Regarding focus, constituents can also appear at the end of a sentence to be put into focus. English's right-dislocation does this.
(5) a. (Original Sentence) I hate that you call coffee bean-juice.
b. (Right-Dislocation) I hate it, your calling coffee bean-juice.
There are also languages that use participles or affixes to mark focus. Such is the case with Boro. The suffix -nw can be added to a verb to denote that the action as depicted by the verb is contrary to what the listener believes. This is one of a number of suffixes, whose finer granularity is not completely understood, in Boro that provided information to the listener about the event depicted by the verb. Another such suffix is -bw, which is considered an additive, saying that the speaker is or has already done the action that the speaker has stated.5
As for an explanation of the locations of topic and focus, topic appears first, before the predication of a sentence, because given information tends to come first in communication. After all, the stage must first be set before the play can be performed. However, exciting information within a play can occur at many different parts of the play, thus the allowance for focus to be found anywhere. Though, like in a play, there is a tendency for the beginning and end to be where focus is generally located. Even within the Boro examples above, these suffixes appear on the end of words. This is because at a psychological level, humans tend to pay attention to the beginnings and ends of things more so than the middle.
Another issue that I would like to discuss is the use of the terms topic and focus. While I believe that focus is a fine enough term, I do have issues with the term topic, as it is also used in at least informal speech to describe what a sentence or story is about (i.e. the predication or some greater theme, such as a moral or ethical issue). Topic, it seems to me, returning to the play analogy, provides a backdrop for the predication. In some sense, the topic grounds the predication in the shared conceptual space of the listener. Thus, I feel ground would be a better term for topic, while its predication (known as the comment) could be better described as the figure that stands atop or before the ground. Both topic and focus do lead to some problem in the initial learning of the terms, as both are used non-linguistic contexts to discuss concepts that are related but distinct from their linguistic uses. That being said, I think that once learned, the difference is not all that incredibly difficult to comprehend.
Thus are some of the syntactic means by which languages single out constituents for special attention along with a discussion of topic and comment and the usefulness of these terms.
1 Taken from Scott DeLancey's Yenhui Classical Chinese (Simplified) problem set for LING 452.
2 This is referred to as left-dislocation because on a written page, English is written from left to right and is typically an SVO language. Thus, left-dislocation is taking a constituent and moving it to the “front” of the sentence. A better term for this is fronting, which is how I will refer to the process in regards to Klamath below.
3 Example taken from Scott DeLancey in the class of LING 452 Spring 2018.
4 Example taken from Scott DeLancey in the class of LING 452 Spring 2018. a gloss of p'anti was not given at the time. This example was included, however, to highlight the ordering of information in non-PIE languages and in particular, an indigenous language of the Americas.
5 Information taken from Scott DeLancey in the class of LING 452 Spring 2018.