Focus particle semantics
Focus particles such as only, even, and also relate the current utterance to other alternatives in the discourse. While particles with these three, well-studied functions are common in language of the world, their precise semantics can vary, and languages also have particles which express different meanings, or meanings which cross-cut these common categories. My own work has studied unique focus particles in Burmese and Tibetan.
My student Keely New and I have investigated the Burmese focus particle hma, which expresses exhaustivity in some contexts but a scalar, even-like meaning in other contexts. We propose that hma is uniformly a not-at-issue scalar exhaustive, and derive these two uses through a scope ambiguity with respect to negation. We also analyze the relationship between hma and the sentence-final mood marker dar as an instance of pragmatic focus concord, best explained through the interaction of these particles’ independent semantics, rather than the result of morphosyntactic agreement.
Erlewine and New, 2021.
“A variably exhaustive and scalar focus particle and pragmatic focus concord in Burmese.”
Semantics & Pragmatics 14:7, pages 1–54. DOI: 10.3765/sp.14.7
New and Erlewine, 2018.
“The expression of exhaustivity and scalarity in Burmese.”
Proceedings of SALT 28, pages 271–288. DOI: 10.3765/salt.v28i0.4442
In recent work, I have studied the Tibetan particle yin.na’ang. Yin.na’ang has three uses: (a) as a counterexpectational discourse particle (like English ‘but’ or ‘however’), (b) as a scalar concessive particle, and (c) to form free choice items with wh-words. Morphologically, yin.na’ang is transparently the combination of a copular verb, conditional ending, and scalar particle (e.g. ‘even’). I develop a compositional semantics for three functions from these ingredients, and also advocate for the extension of this approach to Japanese demo which has a similar distribution and (historical) morphological makeup.
“Counterexpectation, concession, and free choice in Tibetan.”
Proceedings of NELS 50, pages 227–236.
“Universal free choice from concessive copular conditionals in Tibetan.”
Monotonicity in Logic and Language, pages 13–34. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-662-62843-0_2
“Counterexpectation, concession, and free choice in Tibetan and beyond.”
Invited talk at TripleA 7.
I am also interested in the cross-linguistic syntax and semantics of clefts and, more generally, grammatical markers which make reference to the Question Under Discussion (QUD). This interest stems from my investigation of the Mandarin Chinese focus marker shì 是, which I argue expresses cleft semantics without a "cleaving" syntax which separates the focused pivot from its background, as an English it-cleft does. I show that shì requires the material in its scope to be congruent to an accepted QUD, supporting the view that cleft semantics is QUD-dependent (Velleman et al 2012), unlike other exclusives such as only. I also investigate the syntax and semantics of "cleft questions," such as the English Who is it that came last night?, which seem to be an instance of backwards focus association as investigated in my dissertation.
“Mandarin exhaustive focus shì and the syntax of discourse congruence.”
Particles in German, English, and beyond, pages 323–354. DOI: 10.1075/slcs.224.12erl
“Encoding QUD congruence in Mandarin Chinese.”
Presented at European Association of Chinese Linguistics (EACL) 9 (2015) and Theoretical Linguistics at Keio 2016.