Schäfer, Lisa

Topic drop in German: Empirical support for an information-theoretic account to a long-known omission phenomenon

Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft, 40, pp. 161-197, 2021, ISSN 1613-3706, 0721-9067.

German allows for topic drop (Fries1988), the omission of a preverbal constituent from a V2 sentence. I address the underexplored question of why speakers use topic drop with a corpus study and two acceptability rating studies. I propose an information-theoretic explanation based on the Uniform Information Density hypothesis (Levy and Jaeger2007) that accounts for the full picture of data. The information-theoretic approach predicts that topic drop is more felicitous when the omitted constituent is predictable in context and easy to recover. This leads to a more optimal use of the hearer’s processing capacities. The corpus study on the FraC corpus (Horch and Reich2017) shows that grammatical person, verb probability and verbal inflection impact the frequency of topic drop. The two rating experiments indicate that these differences in frequency are also reflected in acceptability and additionally evidence an impact of topicality on topic drop. Taken together my studies constitute the first systematic empirical investigation of previously only sparsely researched observations from the literature. My information-theoretic account provides a unifying explanation of these isolated observations and is also able to account for the effect of verb probability that I find in my corpus study.