Monday, November 1, 2021

Focus without movement

This is the first in a series of posts about focus, nominalized clauses and relativization, which in Koa are all closely related. I'm hoping that by the end of it we'll have cleared up a whole suite of muddlements that have persisted since the early days.

Koa's focus particle, sa, has its origins in Yoruba ni with the same function. In Yoruba, the focalized constituent is moved to the front of the clause, followed by ni (li or l' before an oral vowel), and leaving a gap in its original position:

kíl'o rà níbẹ̀?
what.FOC-2SG buy there
"what did you buy there?"

aṣọ ni mo rà
cloth FOC 1SG buy
"it was cloth I bought"

This is exactly parallel, at least superficially, to the structures in Koa:

kea sa se kou ne toa?
what FOC 2SG buy LOC there
"what did you buy there?"

vate sa ni kou
cloth FOC 1SG buy
"it was cloth I bought"

Movement rules like this seemed plausible enough given Yoruba's permission and I didn't think that much about it until I started trying to translate headless relative clauses. If "What do you want?" is Kea sa se halu?, then how do you say "I don't know what you want"? I recall going through a whole bunch of contortions trying to figure this out:

?ni na ilo [ kea sa se halu ]
1SG NEG know [ what FOC 2SG want ]
A word-for word calque of the English structure. Can embedded clauses can be focused just like main clauses, and without overt marking? Is this how embedded questions should work? This feels very natural, obviously, but that's not necessarily a good thing: it needs to make sense in terms of Koa, not in terms of English.

?ni na ilo ko [ kea sa se halu ]
1SG NEG know COMP [ what FOC 2SG want ]
This has a complementizer to set off the embedded clause, which is how Hungarian does it. Still feeling really nervous about the way focus works in the sub-clause, and also the way the question is embedded.

?ni na ilo ko [ se halu kea ]
1SG NEG know COMP [ 2SG want what ]
This gets rid of the worrisome focus issue, but somehow feels even worse.

I think it was nagging at me that (A) I wasn't sure I really liked my not-particularly-examined movement rules after all, and (B) accepting the IE way of thinking of these as "embedded questions" in the first place felt like sloppy, circular thinking. If there were a book titled What I Think, would the Koa translation genuinely be Kea Sa Ni Lule, using a question word -- and literally exactly the same sequence of words as the question "what do I think?" -- even though there is not really any kind of question being asked? PLUS we're explicitly not supposed to be forced to rely on intonation for basic functional distinctions, and that's exactly what this would require.

It also made me feel a little squirmy that sa was such an anomaly in every way. It's a particle that goes after the constituent it applies to? What in fact was going on here below the surface?

All this led me to remember my Nahuatl, which handles focus in a pretty astonishingly different way. Note that ca is a statement marker, contrasting with e.g. cuix which would turn these into questions:

ca cihuātl in cochi
STMT woman DEF sleep.3SG
"it is a woman who is sleeping," lit. "the she-sleeps-one is a woman"

ca ātl in niqui
STMT water DEF 1SG-drink
"it's water that I'm drinking," lit. "the I-drink-one is water"

Calquing these into Koa, we'd end up with:

mina i ka nuku
woman VP DEF sleep
"it is a woman who is sleeping"

anu i ka ni ma ipo
water VP DEF 1SG IMPF drink
"it's water that I'm drinking"

Several pretty noticeable things came out of this right away.

1) Focus requires no underlying movement rules, which is frankly awesome in a denying-Chomsky-his-invisible-branching-structures kind of way

2) Which constituent counts as the "NP" and which as the "VP" is a little arbitrary; both of these could be flipped around while retaining the focus:

ka nuku i mina
DEF sleep VP woman
"the one sleeping is a woman"

ka ni ma ipo i anu
DEF 1SG IMPF drink VP water
"the thing I'm drinking is water"

3) These structures are exactly parallel to relative clauses:

ka mina ve nuku
DEF woman REL sleep
"the woman who's sleeping"

ka anu ve ni ma ipo
DEF water REL 1SG IMPF drink
"the water I'm drinking"

4) They would give us a Koa-native way of doing "embedded questions," without having to think of them as questions at all:

ka nuku
DEF sleep
"who is sleeping"

ka ni ma ipo
DEF 1SG IMPF drink
"what I'm drinking"

Ka Ni Lule
DEF 1SG think
"What I Think"

5) Most fascinating of all, i ka in the original calqued-from-Nahuatl examples can be replaced with sa to yield identical meanings:

mina sa nuku
woman FOC sleep
"it is a woman who is sleeping"

anu sa ni ma ipo
water FOC 1SG IMPF drink
"it's water that I'm drinking"

Nahuatl made it possible to work backwards up to that Koa structure with sa in such a way that we can understand exactly what it's doing there without having to infer movement at all, AND fixed the headless relative clause problem, all in one fell swoop.

The natural follow-up question, in the face of this, is whether we actually need sa at all! And the answer is yes, for interesting reasons that we'll get to next time...

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