Stress And Focus

It's a challenge to find some of these classrooms. By this point in the term, everyone else has figured out that Room B141 is behind the door marked B140 and in the building marked C. I have to wander around a lot. I miss a couple of classes this way, because I don't want to walk in late and disrupt a class I'm not paying for.

I'm on time for a fourth year course called something vague like Topics in Linguistics. It's a little sparser in pupils than most of the classes I've been in, but there was nothing else on in this time period. We start with a class presentation by three students who are up at the front of the class looking nervous. They draw a couple of trees on the board, just like the ones from the last class. Damnit, I'm going to have to learn this tree stuff. There's a handout. I take one as they are passed along, only later realizing that they wouldn't have made enough up for me to have one, but someone must have been away. There were enough. The title of the presentation is "Topic and focus as linear notions: evidence from Russian and Italian." They're reporting on a particular paper they have been assigned. The first student speaks fluent English with a Russian accent. She explains the sample sentences with terms like c-commanded and with reference to the "right edge" of the tree. When her bit is done, the next woman in the group speaks. She has a Canadian accent but mumbles a bit and it takes me a few phrases to adjust to understanding her. My ear seems to be 'tuned' to the Russian accent. It's clear that the first student did the work and the other two are coasting off her. The guy actually has to interrupt himself to ask the Russian woman for the name of the author of the paper they've been studying. And no, it's not a complex pronunciation issue. I wonder if all three of them share the group mark. I used to hate projects like that.

Then the professor starts the lecture proper. I'm not yet sure to what extent linguistics is a process of cloaking the obvious in obscure terminology. After ten minutes or so of "givenness calculation," "F-marking" and "F-projection" I divine that we're talking about the way languages use verbal stress and other strategies to emphasize part of a sentence, the focus. Givens are information already introduced, in contrast with new information. The lecture assumes I know some rules for focus projection, like normally stress on the final element in a phrase 'projects' focus over that whole phrase. The research the professor is discussing looks for things that go against these general rules. Here are some examples.

(a) John drove Mary's SUV today. What did he drive before that?
(b) He drove [her red convertible]F. (c) John drove Mary's red convertible. What did he drive before that?
(d) He drove her BLUEF convertible

Say sentence (b) as you would if you were just saying that sentence in isolation, then say it again as an answer to the question in (a). For the latter your stress is probably on "convertible," which projects over "her red convertible." But in (d) as a response to (c) the stress is on BLUE because that's the new information. That's okay, because convertible is old information, so the projection doesn't have to go to the right.

Then we meet the sentence "The success of our ventures depends upon the mood of the markets and [the mood of the markets]F depends upon [the state of the economy]F." The second "mood of the markets" is stressed even though it's not new information, because it's new as the subject of depends on. It dawns on me that a "topics in" course is just the professor babbling on about his or her research. This has been interesting, however. I'm slightly amused by the way the little I managed to learn about trees in the previous class got called immediately into use here, and how my musing about stress differentiating between the two meanings of "Who did John wrong?" for a speaker who doesn't use whom, was echoed here in serious scientific study of stress in English prosody. I'm starting to get how linguistics is a science. Linguists study the data they have, formulate theories and then either plan experiments or seek out structures in existing languages to gather data that supports or forces change in their theories.

I'm also remembering why I got out of academia. I realized at the time that I was in a position to stay in university forever, on scholarships, grants, and fellowships. It's such a comfortable place to hide out. Learning things is really fun, as is explaining things, and the need to relate them to the real world is negligible. But I liked having real world results to my actions. I wanted to be useful. So I need to focus on being useful again, even though it's a little stressful.

The telephone tag guy is still away, and the company I interviewed with said that it would be over two weeks before they made their selection, so I have to relax about that for now.