A note on Lambrecht (1994) on sentence accents

In working on research for an article I’m in the process of cleaning up for publication, I have been working through a variety of texts that deal with the interface between intonation and information structure. Lambrecht (1994) is one of the more useful volumes on that regard and requires a close reading. What follows are a few observations about an apparent contradiction apparent within Lambrecht’s book and my attempt at a possible way of reconciling it. I post it here because I am curious about any feedback from readers about the adequacy of my attempt. On a topic as obscure as this, I am not particularly confident that I will actually receive feedback, but I do hold out hope for perhaps two or three readers. Maybe?

Broadly speaking, Lambrecht does an excellent job delineating the various communicative functions of sentence accents. However, one problematic spot is his discussion of the relationship between sentence accents and referent activation. At one point he states that sentence accents are a useful means of activating a topic and gives, as an example, English content questions. When the intended topic of the question is not yet activated, the accent will fall on that inactivated topic and when the intended topic is already activated, the sentence accent will appears on the focal WH-word (282-6), as seen below example (1).

(1)   a. Who wants a COOKIE?

b. Activated topic: WHO ate the cookies?

In these two clauses, the first involves a situation where the referent cookie needs to be activated in the consciousness of the audience, but in the second, the cookie is already activated and the sentence accent falls, instead, on the question word. Thus, in English content questions, the prosodic marking of activation supersedes the marking of focus.[1]

At face value, this has every appearance of a quite reasonable account of the distribution of sentence accents in English content questions.[2] At the same time, the situation is more complex, particularly in light of Lambrecht’s later discussion of the relationship between sentence accents and referent activation. In his discussion of the accentuation of pronouns, Lambrecht makes the point that pronouns are always active in a discourse, by definition. Since pronouns are discourse referring by nature, they are always active, even though they may or may not be accented.[3] Lambrecht argues on this basis that accentuation cannot be treated as a feature of referent activation (323).

Thus, we have the appearance of a contradiction. In the discussion of sentence accents in English content questions on pages 282-6, Lambrecht states categorically that the sentence accent marks an unactivated topic for the purpose of activating it. He states, with reference to the cookie example as well as another one:

“At the time the question is uttered, the referents of the NPs the cookies and that though identifiable to the addressee, have not yet been activated in the addressee’s mind, or, perhaps more accurately, have not yet been established as objects of inquiry in the discourse. The NPs therefore require activation accents” (283-4; my emphasis).

But on the other hand, Lambrecht states explicitly forty pages later:

The accent can … strictly speaking not be a function of the assumed state of the referent in the interlocutor’s mind. Rather it must be a function of the pragmatic ROLE of the referent in the given proposition The function of an accent on constituents with active referents, whether pronominal or nominal, is then to establish the role of a given referent as a topic or a focus argument in a pragmatically structured proposition” (323; my emphasis).

His words “not be a function of the assumed state of the referent in the interlocutor’s mind” involves whether a referent has or has not been activated. These words explicitly contradict his statement previously on pages 282-6.

It might be possible to reconcile these two by recognizing that sentence accentuation is in certain circumstances a sufficient condition for referent activation, but not a necessary one and thus, for that reason, a sentence accent cannot be viewed, by itself, as a feature of activation. In the case of English content questions, the accented constituent in example (1a) is, indeed the topic. It is, perhaps, possible that the strict constituent ordering requirements for English content questions necessitates accentuation as the only sufficient way to activate the topic. If this is an adequate explanation, it confirms what Lambrecht, himself, has already emphasized: “[Sentence accentuation] is filtered through the machinery of grammar” (243).

For this reason, we can expect language specific constructions like what we see here with English content questions, where the already existing grammatical constraints of the construction result in accentuation being the only other possible way to activate the inactive topic. As Bolinger, whom Lambrecht refers to relatively regularly on intonation says,

“A mechanical rule demands that we predict directly where it will fall. A functional rule predicts indirectly: it will fall here, or there, IF the meaning is such-and-such; instead of automatism, we have meaning” (1954:153; his emphasis).

And perhaps that is precisely what we are dealing with in the problem we see here. It is also a possible reason why Lambrecht, himself, uses the phrase “strictly speaking” with reference to what an accent can or cannot be. When it comes to the nature and function of sentence accentuation, we cannot be strict.

Works Cited

Bolinger, Dwight. “English prosodic stress and Spanish sentence order.” Hispania 37 (1954): 152-156.

Lambrecht, Knud. Information structure and sentence form: Topic, focus, and the mental representation of discourse referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Runge, Steve. Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2010.

Smith, Michael B. “Cataphoric pronouns as mental space designators: Their conceptual import and discourse function.” Contini-Morava, Ellen, Robert S. Kirsner and Betsy Rodriquez-Bachiller. Cognitive and communicative approaches to linguistic analysis. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004.


[1] One could envision a situation for these clauses in close proximity, where a mother is offering cookies to her children, only to find when she opens the jar, that the cookies have been eaten without permission.

[2] Lambrecht emphasizes that this is an English-specific phenomenon.

[3] To some extent, this assumes that the pronoun in question is anaphoric, but even cataphoric pronouns, in a sense, involve a sort of “pre-activation” that a speaker uses to create a sort of discontinuous suspense. When the audience encounters a pronoun that is not activated, they anticipate a forthcoming referent (See Runge [2010:63] and Smith {2004:81]). Notably, all cataphoric pronouns in English automatically receive a sentence accent.

5 thoughts on “A note on Lambrecht (1994) on sentence accents

  1. I haven’t read Lambrecht’s book and the subject is mostly outside of my knowledge, but what you are suggesting does seem to be on the right track. It makes sense to think of accents as perhaps performing a range of roles, one of which is activation, and so the activated part is accented, while the accent might fall elsewhere for another reason.

  2. I no longer have my copy of Lambrecht with me (:-(), so maybe you can clear something up for me. Which participant in the conservation is Lambrecht referring to in the quotation on p.323 — the speaker or the listener?

    Personally, I found Lambrecht’s discussion of the various accents confusing because he’ll permit only one focus per statement. So statements with multiple accents cannot be interpreted in his scheme as having multiple foci, but one focus accent plus some other kind of accents. I never got the sense that Lambrecht’s theory of sentence accents was fully worked out in this book.

    1. Well, the answer is really, “Yes.”

      For Lambrecht, activation is dependent upon what participants the speaker thinking are activated in the audience’s mental representation. It’s based on a combination of their shared knowledge of the previous discourse, the speaker’s knowledge of the coming discourse, and their general experience of the world (which, to some degree, may or may not be entirely shared).

      As for the question of multiple foci, that’s actually rather complex because it involves both the claim itself (which may or may not be right) and also the reason he made the claim. Specifically, Lambrecht is responding to the idea that all accent must, by definition, be focus accents, which is a surprisingly pervasive point of view. Lambrecht’s view is first and foremost a response to that idea. In his mind, all evidenced that people have gathered for demonstrating that accentuation = focus, can be better explained by other means. At the same time, there is no reason why it couldn’t be possible that both are true, that on the one hand, a sentence can have multiple foci (e.g. double WH-constructions) and on the other hand, not all accents are focus accents. But Lambrecht’s view needs to be read in this context. He’s reacting to a specific idea and I would say perhaps too much. But as I’ve told you before, Stephen, I’m not convinced that disagreeing with Lambrecht on this point necessitates the collapse of the entire system. Indeed, the very fact that he is working within a framework as flexible as Construction Grammar, suggests otherwise by definition. Very little, if anything, that cannot be cognitively or functionally motivated is universal. And disallowing multiple foci is neither.

      1. Thanks for your response, Mike. To me, “interlocutor’s mind” has to refer a specific participant in that conservation (I have no other way of interpreting the singular “mind”), so I was wondering if the claim is no more than the accent has something to do with participants’ common ground, rather than one particular person’s mind.

        I’m not suggesting that L’s entire system collapses on this (in fact, I rarely think that way about critiques), but I do wonder whether his insistence on a single focus has thrown out the baby with the bathwater (which is, as you point out, that accent = focus).

        1. I should clarify on what I said about “interlocutor’s mind.” I didn’t look back at the quote when I responded. Here’s what I take Lambrecht to mean…

          The interlocutor in question here is the audience, but it is the speaker who is doing the assuming in the phrase: “the assumed state of the referent in the interlocutor’s mind.” That is to say, a speaker makes a judgment on whether they need to activate a referent based on their assumption of the state of that referent in the audience’s mind.

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