Focusing devices are so called because they serve to assign prominence to some element(s) of an utterance or a clause. ‘Prominence’ (or ‘thematic prominence’, as it is often called) is a discoursal notion which has to do with the information structure of utterances. From this perspective, some part or parts of an utterance, conceived of as a message purporting to convey the communicative intentions of the speaker, stand out from the others as being more important than them. Thus, in (1)-(4) below, their own language, directories, a dry load of weed, and the wren are the most prominent or ‘focused’ elements (marked here by italics). 1 Prominence can be achieved by various means, prosodic and structural, or by a combination of both, as is often the case in English. In the examples below, the focused elements have been highlighted by means of special syntactic constructions known as ‘clefting’, as in (1), ‘pseudo-clefting’, as in (2), and ‘topicalisation’ (sometimes also called ‘fronting’), as in (3). It is also possible to highlight a constituent simply by prosodic means, as in (4), where (primary) sentence stress indicates the location of what can be called the ‘information focus’.
(1) [. . . ] and when they are together, ’tis their own language they speak together, the Germans and the French. (Kerry: M. C. )
(2) It’s just what I’m reading. Well, actually, what I do study there is directories, old directories. (Dublin: P. L. )
(3) [. . . ] you’d make sixty baskets in an hour [. . . ] and that was about a load. A dry load of weed it was. (Clare: J. N. )
(4) [. . . ] the wren = the wren is the king of the birds. (Wicklow: T. F. )
What makes the study of focusing devices interesting in the context of HE are the many dissimilarities between English and Irish in their use of focusing devices. These differences derive partly from the different word order systems of the two languages: English, in its present-day stage in particular, is a strict subject-verb-object (SVO) language, whereas Irish - like the other Celtic languages - is, and has long been, a very consistent verb-subject-object (VSO) language. The rigidity of the VSO order, together with the fact that Irish does not use sentence stress as a focusing device, explains why one particular structural device, namely the so-called copula construction, has come to be the major means of focusing in Irish. English, as stated above, can use either structural or prosodic means, or both at the same time. The Irish copula construction, as the name suggests, involves the copula verb is, which in accordance with the verb-first rule of Irish always stands in initial position before the focused element. This construction is the equivalent of the English cleft construction but lacks the introductory pronoun (for further discussion and examples, see section 10.2.6). Topicalisation also exists in Irish, but as will be seen from the discussion in section 10.3.4, its use is restricted to certain types of copular clauses (including also the copula construction).