Theme and rheme

Theme-RhemeDear All,
Have you ever heard the terms “theme” and “rheme” (= focus – background/presupposition)? First, this post defines the two terms and then provides an example of how they have been applied in research. The discussion concludes by pointing at the importance of these notions in linguistics.

Theme (in some sources, also “topic,” “background,” or “presupposition”) is the semantic point of departure of a clause (or more broadly, discourse) about which some information is provided:
1) Tom likes travelling.
2) Our friends have invited us.

In these examples, theme (Tom/our friends) is in the initial position. This is the most common position for theme in English. Due to SVO (subject-verb-object) structure of a typical English sentence, theme is often the subject of the sentence; however, passive voice violates this rule. It is worth mentioning that in some other languages (e.g. Japanese), the common place for theme is the end of a sentence. In languages with free word order (e.g. Ukrainian), theme can be found in the middle of a sentence.

Rheme (in some sources, also “comment,” “focus,” or “pre dictation”) is the destination where the presentation moves after the departure point:
3) Tom likes travelling.
4) Smoking is harmful for our health.

In examples 3 and 4, rheme is represented by “like travelling” and “is harmful for our health”. Structurally, rheme usually follows theme in English. Theme – rheme relationship produce cohesion (Bussmann, 1998) making parts of a sentence a communicative whole.

An interesting application of the theory was realized by Djonov (2005; 2007; 2008) who used theme – rheme relationships to analyze website navigation. Successful Web navigation, according to her, should be cohesive, similar to theme and rheme in verbal texts. Links on one page, in this case, represent the theme of the website while the destination page represents its rheme.

In conclusion, the distinction between theme and rheme is useful in that it allows conducting semantic analysis of single sentences and bigger texts. This is possible because
these notions are oriented not only to the structural aspect of discourse, but also to its semantics which enables us to go beyond the level of a sentence and to explore theme – rheme relationships on a larger scale such as websites and, possibly, other multimodal texts.

Read similar posts:
Phoneme – sound – allophone – phone
Coherence and cohesion
What is linguistics?

References
Bussmann, H. (Ed.). (1998). Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics; translated and edited by Gregory Trauth and Kerstin Kazzazi. London: Routledge.
Djonov, E. (2005). Analysing the organisation of information in websites: from hypermedia design to systemic functional hypermedia discourse analysis. PhD dissertation, School of English and School of Modern Language Studies Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Australia.
Djonov, E. (2007). Website hierarchy and the interaction between content organization, webpage and navigation design: A systemic functional hypermedia discourse analysis perspective. Information Design Journal, 15(2), 144-162.
Djonov, E. (2008). Children’s website structure and navigation. In L. Unsworth (Ed.), Multimodal semiotics: Functional analysis in contexts of education (pp. 216-236). New York: Continuum.
Iaroslav

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17 Comments

  1. atthawit

    thanks

  2. M

    thanks, you make it sound so easy, I was struggling to understand!

  3. Alex

    Thank you very much! I couldn’t understand it at first, but every this clear now.

    • Alex,
      You are very welcome! Thanks for taking time to thank for the post!

  4. Yanina

    Thanks! 🙂 Now I understand!

  5. MsDoe

    How would you explain – A girl brought a box. Indefinite articles, so ‘a girl’ is not information given or retrievable.

    • MsDoe,
      Thanks for your comment. How would you explain this? In my view, it is still a clear SVO structure in which the subject is the theme and the unfolding discourse following the subject is the rheme. It is true to say that a wider sociolinguistic context (who is this girl, why has she she brought a box, where is the action taking place, etc.) is missing. Nonetheless, theme and rheme can be analyzed on both micro (e.g. a sentence) and macro levels (e.g. a text). In this case we are dealing with one sentence alone. What is our starting point – “a girl” (this is our theme). Where do we move after the point of departure – “brought a box” (this is our rheme). So, from both structural (SVO [subject is usually the theme]) and semantic (the point of departure [theme] vs the point where we arrive at or additional information about the initial piece of information [rheme]) points of view we can draw the conclusion about the theme and the rheme in the given situation.

  6. Aliia

    Please, help me with this:Is theme always known? Is rheme always new? The communicative properties of sentences in the light of the theory of the actual division of the sentence.

    • Hi Aliia,
      Thanks for these excellent questions. I would like to begin the answer with a quote from Bussmann (1998; this book is in the reference section of the post):

      Theme vs rheme is the “(s)tructure of utterances according to communicative criteria which can be tested by comparing question-answer pairs: Who sang the song? Caroline (sang the song). The information formulated in the question (sang the song) is the theme of the answer and is usually omitted in the answer; the information sought in the question is the rheme (…) (Caroline)” (p. 1196).

      As you can see from the example above, theme can be missing in a sentence and can be only identified by looking at preceding and following sentences. Now imagine that the answer to the question “Who sang the song?” is “Carolina sang the song” – our rheme in sentence two in this case can be “sang the song” which is not new (this is the answer to your question if rheme is always new).

      Again, based on the example in Bussmann (1998), you can see that the notion of theme-rheme can easily transcend the boundaries of one sentence (e.g. theme of the sentence “Caroline.” is found in the previous sentence). This leads to your question regarding the actual division of a sentence. Theme (particularly so in English with its SVO syntactic structure) is typically placed at the initial position of a sentence and is often expressed by a noun or a pronoun:
      E.g. Stacey picked a flower.

      The theme of this sentence is “Stacey”. Rheme usually follows theme. “Picked a flower” is the rheme of this sentence. Although theme often precedes rheme (the structural perspective), it is not always the case. We cannot rely solely on the structural perspective, we also need to use the semantic perspective. The combination of the structural and semantic perspectives helps get more accurate results of linguistic analysis.

      Here are some more examples where theme is not always known and rheme is not always new or follows the theme:
      1) The imperative mood: e.g. Read the book please (no theme).
      2) Incomplete sentences: e.g. … broken to pieces (no theme).
      3) The beginning of a text: e.g. Once upon a time, a man came from a far-away country… (the theme is not ‘given’, but is ‘new’).
      4) Interrogative sentences: e.g. Who ate the apple? Anna ate the apple (“ate the apple” in sentence two is the rheme which is not new, but is already known).
      5) Poetry: e.g. Up and up flew he (rheme precedes theme) until the mountain top was reached by him (rheme precedes theme).

      I hope that this answer will encourage you to search for better answers (never be afraid of making a mistake in linguistics) and if this blog was of help, please reference it. Thank you!

      • Aliia

        Thank you a lot! Your answer is extremely helpful!

      • You are most welcome.

Trackbacks

  1. Can there be philosophical writing about books? – Lingua Barbara
  2. Phoneme – sound – allophone – phone | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS
  3. Coherence and cohesion | BLOG|ON|LINGUISTICS

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