R.I.P. Knud Lambrecht

Language Log 2019-09-09

I learned yesterday that Knud Lambrecht died on Friday 9/6. As you can see from his Google Scholar page, his scientific work centered on an important area that deserves more than the (already considerable) attention that it gets from linguists — the relations between "information structure" and the form of sentences.

What that means is explained in the preface of his 1994 book Information Structure and Sentence Form: Topic, Focus, and the Mental Representations of Discourse Referents:

This book proposes a theory of the relationship between the structure of sentences and the linguistic and extra-linguistic contexts in which sentences are used as units of propositional information. It is concerned with the system of options which grammars offer speakers for expressing given propositional contents in different grammatical forms under varying discourse circumstances. The research presented here is based on the observation that the structure of a sentence reflects in systematic and theoretically interesting ways a speaker's assumptions about the hearer's state of knowledge and consciousness at the time of an utterance. This relationship between speaker assumptions and the formal structure of the sentence is taken to be governed by rules and conventions of sentence grammar, in a grammatical component which I call INFORMATION STRUCTURE, using a term introduced by Halliday (1967). In the information-structure component of language, propositions as conceptual representations of states of affairs undergo pragmatic structuring according to the utterance contexts in which these states of affairs are to be communicated. Such PRAGMATICALLY STRUCTURED PROPOSITIONS are then expressed as formal objects with morphosyntactic and prosodic structure.

My account of the information-structure component involves an analysis of four independent but interrelated sets of categories. The first is that of PROPOSITIONAL INFORMATION with its two components PRAGMATIC PRESUPPOSITION and PRAGMATIC ASSERTION. These have to do with the speaker's assumptions about the hearer's state of knowledge and awareness at the time of an utterance. The second set of categories is that of IDENTIFIABILITY and ACTIVATION, which have to do with the speaker's assumptions about the nature of the representations of the referents of linguistic expressions in the hearer's mind at the time of an utterance and with the constant changes which these representations undergo in the course of a conversation. The third category is that of TOPIC, which has to do with the pragmatic relation of aboutness between discourse referents and propositions in given discourse contexts. The fourth category is that of FOCUS, which is that element in a pragmatically structured proposition whereby the assertion differs from the presupposition and which makes the utterance of a sentence informative. Each of these categories or sets of categories is shown to correlate directly with structural properties of the sentence.

If this seems a little overwhelming, consider the abstract of William Frawley's 1997 review in the journal Studies in Second Language Acquisition:

When I saw that this book was a comprehensive study of the relationships across discourse, grammar, and prosody, my spirits sagged. "Oh, no," I thought. "Not this story again." But 20 pages into the book I realized that Lambrecht had taken a new and sobering approach to the subject, tackling a very hard subject and giving convincing answers with clear data.

Or better, read Lambrecht's chapter "Constraints on subject-focus mapping in French and English: A contrastive analysis", from the 2010 volume Comparative and contrastive studies of information structure, which explains the issues clearly, with simple examples that will be helpful for second-language learners transitioning into or out of English. The abstract:

Grammars reflect universal constraints on the mappings between the information structure of propositions and the formal structure of sentences. These constraints restrict the possible linkings between pragmatic relations (topic vs. focus), pragmatic properties (given vs. new), semantic roles (agent vs. patient), grammatical relations (subject vs. object), and syntactic positions (preverbal vs. postverbal, etc). While these mapping constraints are universal, their grammatical manifestation is subject to typological variation. For example, although spoken English has been shown to strongly prefer pronominal over lexical subjects, hence to avoid focal subjects, it nevertheless freely permits subject-focus mapping in certain sentence-focus and argument-focus constructions. In spoken French, in contrast, subject-focus mapping is unacceptable if not ungrammatical in most environments. Spoken French shows a near one-to-one mapping between focus structure and phrase structure: Topic expressions occur overwhelmingly in preverbal position and in pronominal form, while focus expressions occur postverbally. To avoid violating this near one-to-one mapping constraint, spoken French makes abundant use of grammatical realignment constructions, especially clefts. Some of these constructions do not exist in English, or have a much more restricted distribution in that language.

One of that article's many enlightening examples: