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Kalinowski, Cristin & Good, Jeff: Focus as a grammatical relation: Evidence from Africa

Current research into the typology of the encoding of grammatical relations recognizes the importance of both relational roles and referential properties of arguments (Bickel 2011). Relational roles, in this context, refer to those deriving from the semantic relationship between the verb and its arguments, of the sort often discussed under the rubric of thematic roles. Referential properties, on the other hand, refer to concepts such as animacy, specificity, and definiteness, which are also known to influence the encoding of grammatical relations. While relational roles have seen the bulk of the attention devoted to modeling notions such as subject and object, further research is needed with respect to the range of referential properties relevant to understanding the nature of grammatical relations.

Bickel’s recent survey suggests that information structure should be considered as a potentially important referential property, for instance in Mayan languages (Bickel 2011:431), where the choice of focus constructions depends on whether the focused element is the subject of a transitive verb versus the single argument of an intransitive verb or a transitive object (i.e., the constructions show ergative alignment). In languages of Africa, the significance of information structure for understanding the morphosyntactic properties of clauses has long been clear (Hyman & Watters 1984), yet this is an area that remains understudied from the perspective of grammatical relations. Focus-sensitive grammatical relations in these languages, in particular, often superficially resemble strategies associated with the encoding of thematic relations in other languages with respect to their formal properties—involving, for instance, rigid patterns of word order, special types of case marking, or verbal argument agreement. This can cause their differences from grammatical relations more closely connected to thematic roles to be underappreciated.

A recently conducted typological survey of over 130 African languages suggests that focus is, in fact, one of the primary properties that needs to be considered in coming to an understanding of grammatical relations in languages of the continent and indicates that it should be set alongside better studied properties such as thematic roles and animacy when considering grammatical relations typology more generally. This paper reports on the results of the survey of most relevance to this issue.

While the specifics of these focus encoding strategies differ, their formal properties resemble constructions otherwise associated with relational roles of the sort connected to thematic relations. This is despite the fact that a property like focus is more in line with referential properties than relational ones. The description of such constructions is not new here. However, they are typically discussed purely in terms of topic and focus encoding (see, for example, van der Wal 2009), rather than being seen as parallel to grammatical relations in other languages. The present survey, however, suggests that we may be dealing with an under-recognized class of grammatical relations driven by information-structure considerations, rather than better understood notions such as thematic roles or animacy.


  • Bickel, Balthasar. 2011. Grammatical relations typology. In Jae Jung Song (ed.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic typology, 399–444. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hyman, Larry M. & John R. Watters. 1984. Auxiliary focus. Studies in African Linguistics 15(3). 233–273.
  • van der Wal, Jenneke. 2009. Word order and information structure in Makhuwa-Enahara. Leiden: Universiteit Leiden Ph.D. dissertation.

Maintained by Stefan Müller

Created: October 25, 2014
Last modified: December 10, 2021

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