Topic and Focus in English and German Sentences. A Cross-Linguistic Analysis

Term Paper, 2011

9 Pages, Grade: A



1 Introduction 3

2 Focus Marking in Spoken English and German 4

3 Focus Marking in Written English and German 5

4 Conclusion 7

Works Cited 9

1 Introduction

When semanticists examine the way speakers or writers code the knowledge they expect their listeners or readers to have in a sentence, one of the most important aspects to consider is the information structure of the sentence Within this information structure, a subdivision is commonly made between already known or given information, which is usually referred to as the ‘topic’ of the sentence, and new information, normally called the ‘focus’ (Saeed 205, 208; Doherty 25) While some languages, for instance Somali, possess explicit focus markers to indicate the focalization of certain elements in a sentence, English has to rely mainly on the intonation of a sentence as the focus marker due to its rigid subject-verb-object (SVO) word order (Saeed 208; Elordieta 1, 4) German, on the other hand, provides a greater syntactic flexibility since it is a highly inflected language in which the grammatical function of words is less defined by their position within a sentence than their grammatical cases (Swan and Smith 34) Therefore, speakers of German do not have to rely solely on changing the intonation in order to mark a sentence’s focus, but may also use syntactic displacement as a focus marker (Elordieta 1, 4) Nevertheless, syntactic changes to focalize certain elements in a sentence are also possible to a limited extent in English, but they require special constructions not necessary for focus marking in German

Since these differences in focus marking seem to be significant in light of the fact that both English and German are Germanic languages, they will constitute the main focus of this paper I will begin my study of topic and focus in the two languages with an examination of the several strategies for focusing employed in spoken English and German and then continue with those strategies typically used in writing In doing this, I take account of the limitation of some of these strategies to one of these two different forms of communication

2 Focus Marking in Spoken English and German

Probably the simplest way of marking the focus of a sentence in spoken English is based on a certain intonation, more specifically on emphasizing the focal element by means of the sentence’s primary stress (Saeed 208):1 (1) a JOHN drove the bus to school

b John drove THE BUS to school

c John drove the bus TO SCHOOL

As is visible in this first example, the speaker may choose to emphasize either the person who drove the bus to school, the vehicle John drove to school, or where John drove the bus, depending on the context of the utterance and the content of the previous conversation Likewise, German speakers may shift the primary stress of a sentence in speech to focalize different elements as the following translations of the first English example show: (2) a JOHN fuhr den Bus zur Schule

b John fuhr DEN BUS zur Schule

c John fuhr den Bus ZUR SCHULE

It is thus apparent that this strategy of marking the focus by changing the intonation of a sentence is available in both spoken English and German, which may be due to the fact that changes in the intonation are the least difficult to realize in the limited time available to produce a sentence in speech Since this common strategy based on intonation is naturally unavailable in writing, however, the differences between English and German are more pronounced in that kind of communication as the next section will illuminate

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Topic and Focus in English and German Sentences. A Cross-Linguistic Analysis
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
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English, German, Englisch, Deutsch, Thema-Rhema, topic and focus
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Master of Arts Patrick Wedekind (Author), 2011, Topic and Focus in English and German Sentences. A Cross-Linguistic Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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