About the shifty notion of contrast

Posted on October 17, 2013 by

The LEL research seminars are back this week with a talk by Eva Schultze-Berndt (Manchester). She’ll be speaking about the shifty notion of contrast: identifying subtypes of topics in corpus data of two Australian languages. Here’s the abstract:

To date, the literature on information structure does not offer a generally accepted taxonomy of subtypes of topics or cross-linguistically valid criteria for identifying them,  and in fact many studies employ an underdifferentiated notion of topic defined in terms of “aboutness”. Recent research does point to a cross-linguistically recurrent and robust formal distinction between contrastive topics on the one hand, and “shifting” or “addressation” topics on the other hand (Büring 1997, Jacobs 2001, Frascarelli & Hinterhölzl 2007, Bianchi & Frascarelli 2010), which manifests itself in English as the distinction between what has been termed left-dislocation and topicalization. Formally distinct topic constructions in the two Australian languages under investigation, Jaminjung (W. Mirndi, Non-Pama-Nyungan) and Ngarinyman (Ngumpin-Yapa, Pama-Nyungan) support this distinction, and moreover support the claim that shifted / addressation topics (but not contrastive topics) constitute a separate speech act from the main clause, i.e. the act of “positing” the topic (Portner & Yabushita 1998; Krifka 2001; Portner 2007; Bianchi & Frascarelli 2010). However, in actual discourse data it can be difficult to associate formally distinct constructions with functions like “contrast” and “shift”, because usage contexts for such subtypes overlap considerably; in other words, the distinction between “contrast” and “shift” cannot be established by annotating topics based on their occurrence in discourse. This accounts for some of the difficulties reported in devising annotation procedures for topics, e.g. by Cook & Bildhauer (2011, 2013). Another difficulty lies in the potential over-application of the aboutness definition to discourse-accessible (“given”) constituents without a clear status as sentence topics, and I will discuss some relevant problematic data from the corpora.

The talk will be at 4.15pm on Tuesday 22nd October in Ellen Wilkinson A2.16. All welcome!


Büring, Daniel. 1997. The Meaning of Topic and Focus – The 59th Street Bridge Accent. London: Routledge.

Cook, Philippa and Felix Bildhauer. 2011. Annotating Information Structure. The case of topic. In Beyond Semantics. Corpus-based Investigations of Pragmatic and Discourse Phenomena, eds. Stefanie Dipper and Heike Zinsmeister, 45-56. Bochum: Universität Bochum: Bochumer Linguistische Arbeitsberichte 3.

Cook, Philippa and Felix Bildhauer. 2013. Identifying “aboutness topics”: two annotation experiments. Dialogue & Discourse 4.

Bianchi, Valentina and Mara Frascarelli. 2010. Is topic a root phenomenon? Iberia 2: 43–88.

Frascarelli, Mara and Roland Hinterhölzl. 2007. Types of Topics in German and Italian. In On Information Structure, Meaning and Form, eds. Susanne Winkler and Kerstin Schwabe, 87-116. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Jacobs, Joachim. 2001. The dimensions of topic-comment. Linguistics 39:641-681.

Krifka, Manfred. 2001. Quantifying into Question Acts. Natural Language Semantics 9:1-40.

Portner, Paul and Katsuhiko Yabushita. 1998. The Semantics and Pragmatics of Topic Phrases. Linguistics and Philosophy 21:117-157.

Portner, Paul. 2007. Instructions for Interpretation as Separate Performatives. In K. Schwabe and S. Winkler (eds.), On Information Structure, Meaning and Form, 407–426. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.