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Verum Focus ISN'T Focus

Lisa Matthewson
University of British Columbia
January 29, 2016 - 3:30pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Room (460-126)

In languages like German or English, the stressing of a finite verb or auxiliary serves to convey emphasis on the truth of a proposition.

  1. A: Good thing it wasn't a dark and stormy night when you were camping yesterday.
    B: It WAS a dark and stormy night.

Since Höhle (1992), this phenomenon is usually called 'verum focus'.  Höhle proposed that stress on an element in the left periphery signals focus on a silent VERUM operator, defined in (2).

  1. [[VERUM(p)]] = 'It is true that p'

A focus analysis is an obvious first hypothesis from a Germanic perspective, because the verum construction in these languages makes use of the same prosodic mechanism as focus does.  Focus-based analyses have been provided by e.g., Büring (2006), Zimmermann & Hole (2008), Leonetti & Escandell-Vidal (2009), Lohnstein (2012), Stommel (2012), McCloskey et al. (2015).

In this talk I argue based on Gitksan (Tsimshianic) that the verum effect does not rely on focus.  I show that verum is encoded in Gitksan by a particle k'ap and that k'ap has almost identical discourse properties to the Germanic verum construction.  However, in Gitksan there is no similarity between the means of marking focus, and the means of marking verum.  Following the spirit of Gutzmann & Castroviejo-Miro (2011) and Repp (2013), I propose that verum involves a Common Ground management operator (cf. Krifka 2008), with the discourse condition in (3).

  1. VERUM(p) is felicitous when ?p is already up for discussion, and the current state of the Common Ground allows a reasonable agent to believe not(p).

This analysis assimilates verum to German discourse particles like ja, which are similarly sensitive to interlocutors' beliefs at the time of utterance.  The near-identity of the discourse conditions on verum in Germanic and Gitksan supports Grosz's (2014) proposal that atomic components of the meanings of discourse-sensitive elements have cross-linguistic generality.

Event Type: 
Linguistics Colloquium