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According to this article, http://www.ntdiscourse.org/2010/03/background-and-foreground-an-introduction/, "grounding" in discourse analysis refers to the difference between "core elements that advance a discourse [and] the peripheral elements that flesh it out," foregrounding pertaining to the former and backgrounding pertaining to the latter. For instance, in narrative, bits of discourse that denote events (e.g. George drove up the old driveway ...) that happen in temporal succession tend to be foregrounded, and bits of discourse that denote non-events (e.g. "... whose winding course reminded Milicent of a gargantuan dead snake") tend to be backgrounded.

Which, if any, natural languages have morphemes or syntactic construction that mark grounding specifically?

  • In Japanese, the particle 'wa' marks the topic rather than a grammatical relation (the marked NP is often the subject, but not necessarily). I'm not clear whether this is the same dimension as foreground/background, or a different one. – Colin Fine Jun 16 '13 at 17:11
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If I understand the question correctly, then I'd say all languages have some way of doing this. (Let's not forget intonation.) In English, you can say "It's John, I'm talking about." Instead of "Today I'm talking about John." In Czech, you simply change the SVO to OVS word order.

But I think the way you phrase the question has to do more with information structure (e.g. topic-focus) of discourse. Foregrounding/backgrounding also happens at phrasal/lecical level. E.g. I'm standing in front of a Church. vs. The church is behind me. vs. The're a bench in front of the church. vs. There's a Church behind this bench. You'll find this sort of analysis in cognitive/construction grammar approaches.

I'd be surprised if there were no languages that did some of this purely morphologically but I can't think of any examples, right now.

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