TRẦN Thuần


University of Potsdam


Existential Constructions, Sentence Focus and Predicate Focus in Vietnamese


The paper is concerned with how different ‘judgment forms’ are realized in Vietnamese. According to Kuroda (1972:154), ‘…there are two different fundamental types of judgments, the categorical and the thetic. Of these, only the former conforms to the traditional paradigm of subject-predicate, while the latter represents simply the recognition or rejection of material of a judgment. The categorical judgment is assumed to consist of two separate acts, one, the act of recognition of that which is to be made the subject, and the other, the act of affirming or denying what is expressed by the predicate about the subject.’

Expressed in terms of Information Structure, thetic judgments are instances of the sentence focus, while categorical judgments are characterized as predicate focus. In the spirit of Lambrecht (2000), the difference between the two types of focus is minimal: sentence focus marking involves cancellation of those prosodic and/or morpho-syntactic subject properties which are associated with the role of subjects as topic expressions in predicate focus sentences, and in a sentence focus construction, the subject tends to be grammatically coded with some or all the prosodic and/or morphosyntactic features associated with the focal object in the corresponding predicate focus construction.

In this paper it is proposed that the sentence focus construction in Vietnamese is actualized by the existential construction, and that the syntax of the sentence focus construction differs from that of the predicate focus in that the subject in the former stays in its base position, while that in the latter moves from its base position to the Spec, TopP. The existential verb may retain its lexical meaning in the sentence focus construction, but is grammaticalized into a focus particle in the predicate focus construction.

Vietnamese existential constructions display information structure-related properties found across languages. For instance, Babby (1980) assumes that in Russian a predicate focus sentence differs from a sentence focus sentence in the scope of assertion/negation. In a sentence focus sentence, the assertion/negation is over the NP and VP, but in the former, the assertion/negation is over the VP. The sentences in (1) are illustrative.

(1) a. Stok talyx vod be nabljudalsja.

runoff-NOM melted water NEG was.observed-M.SG

‘The runoff of thawed snow was not observed.’

(1) b. Stoka talyx vod ne nabljudalos.

runoff-GEN melted water NEG was.observed-N.SG

‘No runoff of thawed snow was observed.’ (=There was no runoff.)

(1a) presupposes that there was some runoff of thawed snow  and assert that it was not observed, i.e. negates only that it was observed. By contrast, (1b) negates the very existence of any runoff of thawed snow, and also negates ‘was observed’, i.e. it negates the whole sentence. Babby relates the observed distinction to the categorical vs. thetic distinction (Kuroda’s 1972). English existential construction displays a similar effect. The following example is from Heim and Kratzer (1997)

(2) a. There will be one mid-term, which will be on November 21st.

(2) b. The mid-term will be on November 21st.

Neither sentence could be true unless there will be a unique mid-term, but in (2a) it is part of the assertion, while in (2b) it is presupposed. Similar examples can be established in Vietnamese.

(3) a. Nước không có chảy xuống.

water not PRT run down

‘The water does not run down.’

(3) b. Không có nước chảy xuống.

not exist/ have water run down

‘There is no water running down.’

Suppose two family members look at the ceiling after the rain, and check if the roof is leaking. There are two possibilities: (i) If the rook is leaking there will be water on the ceiling, and it may drop down; (ii) if the roof is not leaking, then there will be no water, hence there will be no dropping of water.

By uttering (3a) the speaker presupposes that there is water on the ceiling, but asserts that it does not fall down. Therefore, the roof needs fixing because it is certainly leaking. There is no such presupposition with utterance (3b). It simply negates the proposition that there is water running down. In a nutshell, (3a) is a canonical subject-predicate sentence, representing the predicate focus, with the subject ‘water’ dislocated from its base position to Spec, TopP. In this sentence, có is semantically bleached, functioning as a particle, or a focus marking particle, to be more precise. By contrast, (3b) is an existential construction, representing a topic-less sentence, with the subject ‘water’ staying in its base position inside the vP, and có being the existential verb.