Focus Constructions in ASL: Evidence from Pseudoclefting and Doubling

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This study investigates two types of clausal structures in American Sign Language (ASL), “rhetorical” wh-questions and doubling constructions. Following work by Petronio (1993), I assume the stance that rhetorical wh-questions are pseudoclefts (wh-clefts). Unlike languages that use focus particles or relative clause-like structures, here ASL achieves the semantic properties of a cleft by moving the counterweight “answer” of the rhetorical question structure to [Spec,FP], and topicalizing the “question” wh-XP. This is similar to Abnerꞌs analysis of the it-clefting semantics of the rightward wh-R construction in ASL (2011). Both pseudoclefts and doubles have been identified as potential sites for focus; doubles are commonly assumed to have emphatic/prosodic focus (Wilbur 1994, Nunes and Quadros 2006) and it has been previously argued that pseudoclefts have information focus (Lillo-Martin and Quadros 2004). However, as it stands current work under-specifies the exact nature of the differences in information structure, particularly in terms of the nature of the predicational pseudocleft (Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006), which has been variously referred to as emphatic, prosodic, and information focus; or simply just “focus.” From this viewpoint I analyze the differences in information structure between the two clausal types as based on the diagnostics of Kiss (1998). I argue that based on Kiss’s analysis of the distinguishing syntactic and pragmatic features between identificational and information focus, the pseudoclefting construction constitutes identificational focus, and the doubling construction constitutes emphatic information focus.

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