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Colloquium 2 (26th March, 5PM): Floris Roelofsen (ILLC, University of Amsterdam)

Quexistentials and focus (joint work with Sabine Iatridou and Kees Hengeveld)

The second colloquium held at the Department of Linguistics, SNU in Spring 2021 is “Quexistentials and focus” by Floris Roelofsen.

The speaker currently works at Institute for Logic, Language and Computation, Univeristy of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He acquired his PhD in Linguistics from University of Amsterdam in 2008.


Many languages have words which can be interpreted either as question words or as existentials. We call such words quexistentials. An example is the Dutch word wat, which can mean either what or something, exemplified in (1) and (2).
(1) Wie heeft hem WAT gegeven?
    Who has him QUEX given
    `Who has given him what?'

(2) Wie heeft hem wat gegeven?
    Who has him quex given
    `Who has given him something?'

Other languages that have quexistentials include Korean, Russian, Mandarin, and many others. Haida (2007) and other authors have suggested that focus plays an important role in the interpretation of quexistentials: namely, quexistentials are (i) always focused on their interrogative use, and (ii) never focused on their existential use. For instance, in (1), wat is focused and must therefore be interpreted as a question word, while in (2) it is not focused and must therefore be interpreted as an existential.

We argue that the first part of Haida’s generalization is correct but the second one is not. We show that quexistentials can in fact be focused on their existential use, at least in Dutch. We suggest that the first part of the generalization, i.e., the fact that quexistentials are always focused on their interrogative use, should be seen as a particular instance of a more general fact, namely that interrogative words (quexistential or not) are always marked for contrast. We propose to account for this fact by generalizing the common view on contrastive focus in a way that incorporates both an external and an internal notion of contrast.

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