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Doctoral dissertation project of Eric Engel

Referential networks and their role in topic identification (working title)

When we talk, we necessarily talk about something. The term ‘topic’ or ‘topicality’ refers to the widely acknowledged idea that, by default, utterances can be divided into two parts: one that identifies an entity that the utterance is construed to be about, and a second part that constitutes the comment about that entity.

Especially for Romance languages, word-order alternations such as left and right dislocation and the hanging topic construction have traditionally been described as strategies to mark the topic of a sentence. However, this assumption raises a number of questions: If partitioning an utterance into a topic and a comment is important in human communication, why is it the case that even in languages in which such topic-marking constructions are productive, they are still far less in number than canonical, i.e. basic word order? How do speakers determine in those unmarked cases “what the sentence is about”? And what influences a speaker’s choice whether or not to explicitly mark a particular referent as a topic?

This project deals with these questions from the viewpoint of referential continuity, i.e., it aims at scrutinizing the impact of factors such as recency and density of mentions as well as competition with related discourse referents on word order choice. For this purpose, it adopts a corpus-based analysis of semi-spontaneous speech in French and Spanish.


Short biography

Eric Engel holds a BA in French and German linguistics and an MA in General Linguistics from the Humboldt University Berlin. He wrote his MA thesis on “Prepositional null objects in spontaneous spoken French: A corpus study on syntactic, semantic and pragmatic licensing factors” under the supervision of Prof Anke Lüdeling and Prof Aria Adli. Since February 2016, he works as a Research Assistant at the Institute for Romance Studies of the University of Cologne, chair of Prof Aria Adli.

Contact: eric.engel(at)uni-koeln.de

Profile on the website of the Institute for Romance Studies


Cover photo: https://pixabay.com/de/netz-spinnennetz-tautropfen-586177 // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad