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Topik, Fokus, Subjekt - Osnabrück (Deutschland)

19. September 2023 23. September 2023
Topic, focus, and subject constitute the core notions of phrase structure and are heavily involved in various syntactic phenomena that have governed the linguistic agenda of the last 50 years, such as word order (a.o. verb first and verb second phenomena), agreement, case marking, definiteness effects, thematic hierarchies and agentivity, anaphoric or pronominal resolution, language typology, the expression of contrast in discourse and many more.

The traditional definition of subject-hood was heavily influenced by the Greek term hypokei-menon ”˜subject of predication”™ (literally ”˜the material of which things are made”™): the clausal constituent of which the rest of the sentence is predicated. However, this definition of subject-hood falls short on several points. First, it is at odds with the very existence of expletives in non-null subject languages (It seems that ”¦). Furthermore, it is unclear to what extent the pair subject ”“ predicate differs from the pairs topic ”“ comment and/or focus ”“ background. Although subjects and topics share the notion of ”œaboutness”, they diverge with respect to optionality: a clause must have a subject, but can dispense with a topic (Rizzi 2005; and more generally the very existence of wide-focus sentences). In many cases, subjects will also be topics and there are grammatical processes where both notions must coincide, typically topic-drop (e.g. German Was ist mit Peter? ”” Ist wieder krank). However, topic-hood is neither restricted to, nor required for subjects. Topics may be recursive, while subjects never are. Therefore, a sentence may involve topics that are not subjects (e.g. Italian Le pillole, sì che pro le ha prese ”˜The pills, for sure he has taken them”™). On the other hand, focused subjects instantiate subjects that are not topics, at least under the standard view that topics and focus do not coincide (possibly with the exception of contrastive readings, but see Neeleman e.a. 2009). Just like other constituents, subjects may also be focused, and there are principled interactions between the notions of subject-hood and focus. Since focus must always be overtly realized (and is frequently prosodically marked), focused subjects may never be null, not even in null-subject languages. Interestingly, whereas expletive subjects may be left out in topic-drop (e.g. German 11. Dezember. Hat nicht aufgehört zu regnen ”˜December 11. Didnt stop raining”™), they cannot be in the context of focus (e.g. *It was yesterday that didnt stop raining).
A proper definition of subject-hood should consider three major aspects: thematic-argumental, morpho-syntactic and information structural properties (Svenonius 2002, Dryer 2013). There are straightforward cases in which these three components converge on a single constituent (John smiles). In contrast to these ”œeasy” subjects and as discussed above, there are also cases in which these components are carried over to different constituents, or may lack altogether (There are cats in the garden; It rains; The Russian-Ukrainian war worries the president; It was yesterday that John came): expletives lack a theta-role by definition, the argumental status of quasi-argumental subjects is still unsettled and the subject of (some) psych verbs does not carry the thematically highest θ-role etc.