Expression of information structure in West Slavic: Modeling the impact of prosodic and word-order factors
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Expression of information structure in West Slavic:
Modeling the impact of prosodic and word-order factors

The received wisdom is that word-order alternations in Slavic languages arise as a direct consequence of word-order-related information-structure constraints such as ‘Place given expressions before new ones’. In this article, we compare the word-order hypothesis with a competing one, according to which word-order alternations arise as a consequence of a prosodic constraint: ‘Avoid stress on given expressions’. Based on novel experimental and modeling data, we conclude that the prosodic hypothesis is more adequate than the word-order hypothesis. Yet we also show that combining the strengths of both hypotheses provides the best fit for the data. Methodologically, our article is based on gradient acceptability judgments and multiple regression, which allows us to evaluate whether violations of generalizations like ‘Given precedes new’ or ‘Given lacks stress’ lead to a consistent decrease in acceptability and to quantify the size of their respective effects. Focusing on the empirical adequacy of such generalizations rather than on specific theoretical implementations also makes it possible to bridge the gap between different linguistic traditions and to directly compare predictions emerging from formal and functional approaches.


information structure, givenness, word order, prosody, acceptability-judgment experiments, modeling, multiple regression, Slavic

1. Introduction

This article contributes to the long-standing discussion of how information structure is formally expressed. Our main research question is this: To what extent do information-structure-related word-order alternations reflect an inherent connection between information structure and word order (the word-order hypothesis), and to what extent do they merely help to fulfill independent prosodic requirements (the prosodic hypothesis)? The word-order hypothesis is incarnated in generalizations like ‘Foci are sentence-final’, ‘Topics are sentence-initial’, or ‘Discourse-given expressions precede new ones’. The prosodic hypothesis relies on generalizations like ‘Focus realizes nuclear stress’, ‘Topic realizes prenuclear stress’, or ‘Discourse-given expressions lack stress’, and it takes word-order alternations to be ways of satisfying prosodic requirements such as the nuclear stress rule. The Czech example in 1 illustrates the issue. Even though Czech is an SVO language, 1B exhibits an OV order, as a result of being [End Page 671] uttered in the context of 1A. According to the word-order hypothesis, the OV order is used in order to comply with the requirement that given expressions precede new ones. According to the prosodic hypothesis, the OV order is a solution to two prosodic requirements: that given expressions lack sentence stress and that sentence stress is placed clause-finally.1


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In this article, we investigate the formal expression of the information-structural category of givenness in Czech, Slovak, and Polish. These languages are particularly suitable for tackling the research question because they exhibit a high degree of flexibility in both word order and prosody. At the same time, they are traditionally considered ‘discourse-configurational’ and as such are believed to supply strong evidence for the word-order hypothesis. The conclusion we reach in this article is different. We argue that a careful investigation of these West Slavic languages lends unequivocal support to the prosodic hypothesis (as compared to the word-order hypothesis). More particularly, our results indicate a strong and consistent connection between givenness and prosody to the effect that given expressions do not realize sentence stress. The relation between givenness and word order—to the effect that given expressions precede new ones—is shown to be much weaker and less consistent. Yet our results also suggest that the most successful account might in fact be one that combines the strengths of both hypotheses.

The present contribution is unique in that the prosodic and the word-order hypotheses are directly compared for a set of languages with relatively free word order. There is evidence from previous experiments that givenness is expressed prosodically in languages with restricted word-order possibilities like English, but the issue remains largely open for languages that are in principle syntactically flexible enough to express givenness by reordering. Such languages, like the Slavic ones, are an ideal test case for our research question, as none of the hypotheses is implausible...