Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 1027–1077 | Cite as

The morphosyntax of exhaustive focus

A view from Awing (Grassfields Bantu)
  • Henry Fominyam
  • Radek Šimík


We provide an analysis of focus and exhaustive focus in the Grassfields Bantu language Awing. We show that Awing provides an exceptionally clear window into the syntactic properties of exhaustive focus. Our analysis reveals that the Awing particle lə́ (le) realizes a left-peripheral head which, in terms of its syntactic position in the functional sequence, closely corresponds to the Foc(us) head in standard cartographic analyses (e.g., Rizzi 1997). Crucially, however, we show that le is only used if the focus it associates with receives a presuppositional exhaustive (cleft-like) interpretation. Other types of focus are not formally encoded in Awing. In order to reflect this semantic specification of le, we call its syntactic category Exh rather than Foc. Another point of difference from what one would consider a “standard” cartographic Foc head is that the focus associated with le is not realized in its specifier but rather within its complement. More particularly, we argue that le associates with the closest maximal projection it asymmetrically c-commands. The broader theoretical relevance of the present work is at least two-fold. First, our paper offers novel evidence in support of Horvath’s (2010) Strong Modularity Hypothesis for Discourse Features, according to which information structural notions such as focus cannot be represented in narrow syntax as formal features. We argue that the information structure-related movement operations that Awing exhibits can be accounted for by interface considerations, in the spirit of Reinhart (2006). Second, our data support the generality of the so-called closeness requirement on association with focus (Jacobs 1983), which dictates that a focus-sensitive particle be as close to its focus as possible (in terms of c-command). What is of special significance is the fact that Awing exhibits two different avenues to satisfying closeness. The standard one—previously described for German or Vietnamese and witnessed here for the Awing particle tśɔ’ə ‘only’—relies primarily on the flexible attachment of the focus-sensitive particle. The Awing particle le, in contrast, is syntactically rigid. For that reason, the satisfaction of closeness relies solely on the flexibility of other syntactic constituents.


Awing Grassfields Bantu Exhaustive focus Focus encoding Verbal morphosyntax Interface of syntax and information structure 



This work was supported by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) (H. Fominyam) and the German Research Foundation (DFG), more particularly by the SFB632: Information Structure (both authors), and, in its final stage, also by the project Definiteness in articleless Slavic languages (R. Šimík).

This work was presented, in various stages of development, at three occasions: at the workshop That depends…, an event associated with the PhD defence of Pavel Rudnev (Groningen, April 2015), in the Potsdam Syntax-Semantics Colloquium (June 2015), and in the Syntax Circle at ZAS Berlin (October 2016). We are grateful to the audiences for the inspiring feedback. We would further like to thank to Jakub Dotlačil, Patrick Elliott, Mitcho Erlewine, Gisbert Fanselow, Ines Fiedler, Berit Gehrke, Fatima Hamlaoui, André Meinunger, Maria Polinsky, Pavel Rudnev, Craig Sailor, Luis Vicente, Jenneke van der Wal, Marta Wierzba, Malte Zimmermann, and Jan-Wouter Zwart. We also profited from the detailed and constructive comments of three anonymous reviewers, as well as our editor, Ad Neeleman. All remaining errors are ours.


  1. Aboh, Enoch. 1998. From the syntax of Gungbe to the grammar of Gbe. PhD diss., University of Geneva. Google Scholar
  2. Aboh, Enoch. 2004. The morphosyntax of complement-head sequences: Clause structure and word order patterns in Kwa. Oxford: Oxford University Press. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aboh, Enoch. 2006. When verbal predicates go fronting. In ZAS papers in linguistics 46: Papers on information structure in African languages, eds. Ines Fiedler and Anne Schwarz, 21–48. Berlin: Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft. Google Scholar
  4. Aboh, Enoch, and Marina Dyakonova. 2009. Predicate doubling and parallel chains. Lingua 119 (7): 1035–1065. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Azieshi, Gisele. 1994. Phonologie structurale de l’Awing. PhD diss., Université de Yaoundé. Google Scholar
  6. Baumann, Stefan. 2014. Second occurrence focus. In The Oxford handbook of information structure, eds. Caroline Féry and Shinichiro Ishihara. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  7. Bayırlı, İsa Kerem. 2017. On an impossible affix. In MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 81: Papers in morphology, eds. Snejana Iovtcheva and Benjamin Storme, 1–14. Cambridge: MITWPL. Google Scholar
  8. Beaver, David, and Brady Clark. 2008. Sense and sensitivity: How focus determines meaning. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Belletti, Adriana. 2004. Aspects of the low IP area. In The structure of CP and IP: The cartography of syntactic structures, Vol. 2, ed. Luigi Rizzi, 16–51. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  10. Biloa, Edmond. 2015. Cartography and antisymmetry: Essays on the nature and structure of the C and I domains. Ms., University of Yaoundé I. Google Scholar
  11. Bošković, Željko. 2009. Scrambling. In Die Slavischen Sprachen/The Slavic languages. Halbband 1: Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft, eds. Sebastian Kempgen, Peter Kosta, Tilman Berger, and Karl Gutschmidt, 714–725. Berlin: De Gruyter. Google Scholar
  12. Bresnan, Joan, and Jonni Kanerva. 1989. Locative inversion in Chicheŵa: A case study of factorization in grammar. Linguistic Inquiry 20 (1): 1–50. Google Scholar
  13. Brody, Michael. 1995. Focus and checking theory. In Approaches to Hungarian 5: Levels and structures, ed. István Kenesei, 31–43. Szeged: JATEPress. Google Scholar
  14. Buell, Leston C. 2005. Issues in Zulu verbal morphosyntax. PhD diss., University of California at Los Angeles. Google Scholar
  15. Buell, Leston C. 2006. The Zulu conjoint/disjoint verb alternation: Focus or constituency? In ZAS papers in linguistics 43: Papers in Bantu grammar and description, eds. Laura Downing, Lutz Marten, and Sabine Zerbian, 9–30. Berlin: Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft. Google Scholar
  16. Buell, Leston C. 2009. Evaluating the immediate postverbal position as a focus position in Zulu. In 38th Annual Conference on African Linguistics (ACAL), eds. Masangu Matondo, Fiona McLaughlin, and Eric Potsdam, 166–172. Somerville: Cascadilla Proceedings Project. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. Google Scholar
  17. Büring, Daniel. 2003. On D-trees, beans, and B-accents. Linguistics and Philosophy 26 (5): 511–545. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Büring, Daniel. 2010. Towards a typology of focus realization. In Information structure: Theoretical, typological, and experimental perspectives, eds. Malte Zimmermann and Caroline Féry, 177–205. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  19. Büring, Daniel, and Katharina Hartmann. 2001. The syntax and semantics of focus-sensitive particles in German. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 19 (2): 229–281. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Büring, Daniel, and Manuel Križ. 2013. It’s that, and that’s it! Exhaustivity and homogeneity presuppositions in clefts (and definites). Semantics and Pragmatics 6 (6): 1–29. Google Scholar
  21. Carstens, Vicki, and Loyiso Mletshe. 2015. Radical defectivity: Implications of Xhosa expletive constructions. Linguistic Inquiry 46 (2): 187–242. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Cheng, Lisa Lai-Shen, and Laura Downing. 2009. Where’s the topic in Zulu? The Linguistic Review 26 (2-3): 207–238. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Cheng, Lisa Lai-Shen, and Laura Downing. 2013. Clefts in Durban Zulu. In Cleft structures, eds. Katharina Hartmann and Tonjes Veenstra, 141–164. Amsterdam: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Chomsky, Noam. 2001. Derivation by phase. In Ken Hale: A life in language, ed. Michael Kenstowicz, 1–52. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  25. Chomsky, Noam. 2015. Problems of projection: Extensions. In Structures, strategies, and beyond: Studies in honour of Adriana Belletti, eds. Elisa Di Domenico, Cornelia Hamann, and Simona Matteini, 1–16. Amsterdam: Benjamins. Google Scholar
  26. Collins, Chris, and Komlan E. Essizewa. 2007. The syntax of verb focus in Kabiye. In 37th Annual Conference on African Linguistics (ACAL), eds. Doris L. Payne and Jaime Peña, 191–203. Somerville: Cascadilla Proceedings Project. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. Google Scholar
  27. Devos, Maud, and Johan van der Auwera. 2013. Jespersen cycles in Bantu: Double and triple negation. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 34 (2): 205–274. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Erlewine, Michael Yoshitaka. 2014. Movement out of focus. Cambridge: MIT. Google Scholar
  29. Erlewine, Michael Yoshitaka. To appear. Vietnamese focus particles and derivation by phase. Journal of East Asian Linguistics. Google Scholar
  30. Erlewine, Michael Yoshitaka, and Hadas Kotek. 2016. Tanglewood untangled. In 26th conference on Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT), 224–243. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. Google Scholar
  31. Fanselow, Gisbert. 2006. On pure syntax (uncontaminated by information structure). In Form, structure, and grammar, eds. Patrick Brandt and Eric Fuß, 137–157. Berlin: Akademie. Google Scholar
  32. Fanselow, Gisbert. 2008. In need of mediation: The relation between syntax and information structure. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55 (3-4): 397–413. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Fanselow, Gisbert, and Denisa Lenertová. 2011. Left peripheral focus: Mismatches between syntax and information structure. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 29 (1): 169–209. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Fiedler, Ines, Katharina Hartmann, Brigitte Reineke, Anne Schwarz, and Malte Zimmermann. 2010. Subject focus in West African languages. In Information structure: Theoretical, typological, and experimental perspectives, eds. Malte Zimmermann and Caroline Féry, 234–257. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  35. Fominyam, Henry. 2012. Towards the fine structure of Awing left periphery. Master’s thesis, University of Yaoundé I. Google Scholar
  36. Fominyam, Henry. 2015. The syntax of focus and interrogation in Awing: A descriptive approach. In Interdisciplinary studies on information structure 19: Mood, exhaustivity, and focus marking in non-European languages, eds. Mira Grubic and Felix Bildhauer, 29–62. Potsdam: Universitätsverlag Potsdam. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. Google Scholar
  37. Fox, Danny, and David Pesetsky. 2005. Cyclic linearization of syntactic structure. Theoretical Linguistics 31 (1-2): 1–45. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Givón, Talmy. 1975. Serial verbs and syntactic change: Niger-Congo. In Word order and word order change, ed. Charles N. Li, 47–112. Austin: University of Texas Press. Google Scholar
  39. Güldemann, Tom. 2003. Present progressive vis-à-vis predication focus in Bantu: A verbal category between semantics and pragmatics. Studies in Languages 27 (2): 323–360. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Harbert, Wayne, and Maher Bahloul. 2002. Postverbal subjects in Arabic and the theory of agreement. In Themes in Arabic and Hebrew syntax, eds. Jamal Ouhalla and Ur Shlonsky, 45–70. Dordrecht: Kluwer. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Horvath, Julia. 1995. Structural focus, structural case, and the notion of feature-assignment. In Discourse configurational languages, ed. Katalin É. Kiss, 28–64. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  42. Horvath, Julia. 2000. Interfaces vs. the computational system in the syntax of focus. In Interface strategies, eds. Hans Bennis, Martin Everaert, and Eric Reuland, 183–206. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Google Scholar
  43. Horvath, Julia. 2005. Is ‘focus movement’ driven by stress? In Approaches to Hungarian 9, 131–158. Szeged: JATEPress. Google Scholar
  44. Horvath, Julia. 2007. Separating “focus movement” from focus. In Phrasal and clausal architecture: Syntactic derivation and interpretation, eds. Simin Karimi, Vida Samiian, and Wendy K. Wilkins, 108–145. Amsterdam: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Horvath, Julia. 2010. “Discourse features,” syntactic displacement, and the status of contrast. Lingua 120 (6): 1346–1369. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Horvath, Julia. 2013. Focus, exhaustivity, and the syntax of wh-interrogatives: The case of Hungarian. In Approaches to Hungarian 13: Papers from the 2011 Lund conference, eds. Johan Brandtler, Valéria Molnár, and Christer Platzack, 97–132. Amsterdam: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Hyman, Larry M., and Maria Polinsky. 2010. Focus in Aghem. In Information structure: Theoretical, typological, and empirical perspectives, eds. Malte Zimmermann and Caroline Féry, 206–233. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  48. Hyman, Larry M., and John R. Watters. 1984. Auxiliary focus. Studies in African Linguistics 15 (3): 233–273. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. Google Scholar
  49. Jackendoff, Ray. 1972. Semantic interpretation in generative grammar. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  50. Jacobs, Joachim. 1983. Fokus und Skalen: Zur Syntax und Semantik von Gradpartikeln im Deutschen. Tübingen: Niemeyer. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kandybowicz, Jason. 2008. The grammar of repetition: Nupe grammar at the syntax-phonology interface. Amsterdam: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kayne, Richard S. 1994. The antisymmetry of syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  53. Kenesei, István. 1986. On the logic of Hungarian word order. In Topic, focus, and configurationality, eds. Werner Abraham and Sjaak de Meij, 143–159. Amsterdam: Benjamins. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Koopman, Hilda. 1984. The syntax of verbs. Dordrecht: Foris. Google Scholar
  55. Kratzer, Angelika. 1991. The representation of focus. In Semantics: An international handbook of contemporary research, eds. Arnim vonStechow and Dieter Wunderlich, 825–834. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Google Scholar
  56. Krifka, Manfred. 2007. Basic notions of information structure. In Interdisciplinary studies on information structure 6: The notions of information structure, eds. Caroline Féry, Gisbert Fanselow, and Manfred Krifka, 13–55. Potsdam: Universitätsverlag Potsdam. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. Google Scholar
  57. Križ, Manuel. To appear. It-clefts, exhaustivity, and definite descriptions. In Questions in discourse, eds. Klaus von Heusinger, Edgar Onea, and Malte Zimmermann. Amsterdam: Brill. Google Scholar
  58. Laka, Itziar. 1990. Negation in syntax: On the nature of functional categories and projections. PhD diss., MIT. Google Scholar
  59. Leffel, Timothy, Radek Šimík, and Marta Wierzba. 2014. Pronominal F-markers in Basaá. In 43rd annual meeting of the North East Linguistic Society (NELS), eds. Hsin-Lun Huang, Ethan Poole, and Amanda Rysling, 265–276. Amherst: GLSA. Google Scholar
  60. Lenerz, Jürgen. 1977. Zur Abfolge nominaler Satzglieder im Deutschen. Tübingen: Narr. Google Scholar
  61. Marten, Lutz, and Jenneke van der Wal. 2014. A typology of Bantu subject inversion. Linguistic Variation 14 (2): 318–368. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Matushansky, Ora. 2006. Head movement in linguistic theory. Linguistic Inquiry 37 (1): 69–109. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Morimoto, Yukiko. 2000. Discourse configurationality in Bantu morphosyntax. PhD diss., Stanford University. Google Scholar
  64. Ndayiragije, Juvénal. 1999. Checking economy. Linguistic Inquiry 30 (3): 399–444. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Pesetsky, David. 2013. Russian case morphology and the syntactic categories. Cambridge: MIT Press. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Reinhart, Tanya. 1995. Interface strategies. In OTS working papers in theoretical linguistics 95-002. Utrecht: OTS. Google Scholar
  67. Reinhart, Tanya. 1997. Interface economy: Focus and markedness. In The role of economy principles in linguistic theory, eds. Chris Wilder, Hans-Martin Gärtner, and Manfred Bierwisch, 146–169. Berlin: Akademischer. Google Scholar
  68. Reinhart, Tanya. 2006. Interface strategies: Optimal and costly computations. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  69. Rizzi, Luigi. 1997. The fine structure of the left periphery. In Elements of grammar: A handbook of generative syntax, ed. Liliane Haegeman, 281–337. Dordrecht: Kluwer. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Rizzi, Luigi. 2013. Introduction: Core computational principles in natural language syntax. Lingua 130: 1–13. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Rooth, Mats. 1985. Association with focus. PhD diss., University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Google Scholar
  72. Rooth, Mats. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1 (1): 75–116. Available at CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Sabel, Joachim, and Jochen Zeller. 2006. Wh-question formation in Nguni. In 35th Annual Conference on African Linguistics (ACAL), eds. John Mugane, John P. Hutchison, and Dee A. Worman, 271–283. Somerville: Cascadilla Proceedings Project. Available at Accessed 9 March 2017. Google Scholar
  74. Szendrői, Kriszta. 2005. Focus movement (with special reference to Hungarian). In The Blackwell companion to syntax, eds. Martin Everaert and Henk van Riemsdijk, Vol. 2, 270–335. London: Blackwell. Google Scholar
  75. Tamanji, Pius N. 2009. A descriptive grammar of Bafut. Köln: Rüddiger Köppe. Google Scholar
  76. Travis, Lisa. 1984. Parameters and effects of word order variation. PhD diss., MIT. Google Scholar
  77. Tsimpli, Ianthi-Maria. 1995. Focussing in modern Greek. In Discourse configurational languages, ed. Katalin É. Kiss, 176–206. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  78. Tuller, Laurice. 1992. The syntax of postverbal focus constructions in Chadic. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 10 (2): 303–334. Available at CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. van der Berg, Bianca. 2009. A phonological sketch of Awing. SIL Cameroon. Accessed 9 March 2017.
  80. van der Wal, Jenneke. 2011. Focus excluding alternatives: Conjoint/disjoint marking in Makhuwa. Lingua 121 (11): 1734–1750. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. van der Wal, Jenneke, and Larry M. Hyman, eds. 2017. The conjoint/disjoint alternation in Bantu. Berlin: de Gruyter. Google Scholar
  82. Velleman, Dan, David Beaver, Emilie Destruel, Dylan Bumford, Edgar Onea, and Liz Coppock. 2012. It-clefts are IT (inquiry terminating) constructions. In 22nd conference on Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT), ed. Anca Chereches, 441–460. Google Scholar
  83. Velleman, Leah, and David Beaver. 2015. Question-based models of information structure. In The Oxford handbook of information structure, eds. Caroline Féry and Shinichiro Ishihara. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  84. Watters, John R. 1979. Focus in Aghem: A study of its formal correlates and typology. In Aghem grammatical structure, ed. Larry M. Hyman, 137–197. Los Angeles: University of Southern California. Google Scholar
  85. Wiland, Bartosz. 2009. Aspects of order preservation in Polish and English. PhD diss., University of Poznań. Google Scholar
  86. Zeller, Jochen. 2008. The subject marker in Bantu as an antifocus marker. In Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics 38, 221–254. Stellenbosch University: Department of General Linguistics. Google Scholar
  87. Zeller, Jochen. 2015. Argument prominence and agreement: Explaining an unexpected object asymmetry in Zulu. Lingua 156: 17–39. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Zerbian, Sabine. 2006. Inversion structures in Northern Sotho. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 24 (3): 361–376. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of PotsdamPotsdamGermany
  2. 2.Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

Personalised recommendations