Quexistentials and Focus
Kees Hengeveld, Sabine Iatridou, Floris Roelofsen
December 2020

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. Other languages that have quexistentials include Russian, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, German, and Passamaquoddy. It has been observed in the literature that focus plays an important role in the interpretation of quexistentials. More specifically, it has been claimed that across languages, quexistentials are (i) always focused on their interrogative interpretation, and (ii) never focused on their existential interpretation (see Haida 2007 pages 47, 51, 169, 182, and the many further references given there). We refer to this as the quexistential-focus biconditional: a quexistential is interpreted as a question word if and only if it is focused. The contribution of the paper is twofold. On the one hand, we offer a possible explanation for one direction of the quexistential-focus biconditional, namely the fact that quexistentials are generally contrastively focused on their interrogative use. We argue that this should be seen as a particular instance of an even more general fact, namely that interrogative words (quexistential or not) are always contrastively focused. 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. The second contribution of the paper concerns the other direction of the quexistential-focus biconditional. We present evidence which, at least at face value, suggests that this part of the generalization is in fact not valid. That is, focus on a quexistential does not necessarily preclude an existential interpretation, at least not in all languages. Specifically, we will show that it is possible for Dutch wat to be interpreted existentially even when it is focused. However, we observe that the environments that license an existential reading of focused quexistentials in Dutch fail to do in German and Russian. The paper ends with a preliminary exploration of a possible account of this cross-linguistic difference, including a possible viewpoint from which the connection between quexistentials and focus in Dutch is not different from that in German and Russian after all.
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Reference: lingbuzz/005601
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keywords: quexistential, question word, existential indefinite, dutch, russian, passamaquoddy, contrastive focus, semantics, syntax, phonology
previous versions: v1 [December 2020]
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