The role of focus alternatives in discourse coherence - Speaker: Katharina Spalek

The role of focus alternatives in discourse coherence

Katharina Spalek

Humboldt Universität Berlin

Focus can be realised in different ways in different languages, for example phonetically, morphologically or syntactically. Its function has been described as presenting new information or encoding the most important part of an utterance. However, in recent years another assumption has gained a lot of momentum: Focus indicates the presence of alternatives that are relevant for the interpretation of linguistic expressions [1]. For example, an utterance like “The cook picked some fresh BASIL.” with focus accent on basil, implies that no other herb was picked and/ or that basil was a choice from several different herbs. By contrast, “The COOK picked some fresh basil.” implies that the cook and not somebody else (e.g., the gardener) has done the picking.

While the effect of focus on discourse coherence is less obvious than the effect of topic or givenness, focus subtly alters the coherence structure within a discourse. Consider the following fragment of text: “The COOK picked some fresh basil. Usually, this was the gardener’s job, but he had a migraine today and couldn’t come to work.” Coherence is established (among other cues) because gardener is a focus alternative to cook. The exact same fragment would be less coherent with a different focus structure, namely: “The cook picked some fresh BASIL. Usually, this was the gardener’s job …”

In my talk, I will present evidence from both neuroimaging and behavioural studies showing that focus alternatives play a part in establishing discourse coherence. I will also consider how both context and an individual’s background knowledge can alter the content of an alternative set.

If you would like to meet the speaker, please contact Matthew Crocker.