When the experts disagree – Information structure edition

I’m catching up with my blog reading from last week.  Kris Lyle brings up an interesting case in which two experts on New Testament discourse disagree with one another from John 15.7.  I have no particular interest here in whether Levisohn or Runge is correct about the information structure of the verse, but what I was impressed with was Kris’s demonstration of how to think through the issues involved:

  1. No doubt the word order is marked. The question is which constituent is marked: the verb or the non-verbal constituent?
  2. Normally when a non-topical constituent is placed before the verb it’s to mark it as focal (as Levinsohn suggests), though sometimes all the other non-verbal constituents can be moved up front so as to save the verb for last, isolating it at the end and marking it as focal (which is what Runge indicates).
  3. How to determine which is which is basically to gauge which constituent is more given/presupposed than the other: “ask” or “whatever you want”.
  4. In 14.13 both concepts are equally activated via left-dislocation.
  5. In 14.14 the balance is disrupted and “anything” (τι) is marked as focal.
  6. In 15.16 they are equally activated as a single topic.
  7. 16.23 same thing as before.
  8. In 16.24 the concept of asking for stuff is discussed in an unmarked fashion (i.e. default).
  9. Over all, it seems that Jesus is internally flustered (in a good way) because his disciples have asked God for nothing! It seems he’s trying to egg them on, coaxing them into asking (for anything) so that God might be glorified through the fruit that his reaped in his compliance with their requests.
  10. With that said, I think that “asking” (i.e. prayer) is the most presupposed instruction that Jesus is passing on to his peeps in John 15.7. It’s not that there is anything new about the instruction to pray. It’s what Jesus has been talking about, is about to do, and more importantly, one of the primary modes of “abiding” or “remaining” in the vine that he reveals. In praying, while abiding, fruit is borne—requests are granted.
  11. So I think the part of the sentence that makes this utterance into an assertion (i.e. what is focal) is the “whatever you want” part. He’s already instructed his disciples to do this (almost verbatim) in 14.13, but at that point no part is marked. But then, in the next verse, this “whatever you want” aspect is in fact marked out as focal. So I think here, too, we have the same thing: “whatever you want” is fronted to indicate it as the focal part of the utterance.
  12. And I thus side with Levinsohn. No hard feelings Steve. 😉

Information structure is not really my thing, but I do find myself thinking about the information structure of particular texts from time to time.  And, I think Kris has given me a good example to click back to see how I can think through issues of markedness that I might come across.

At any rate, if you are interested in the information structure of that particular verse, click through an interact with Kris on his blog.