Theme and rheme
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, it is possible to find the theme in the middle (e.g. Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, etc.) or the end (e.g. Fijian, Palauan) of a sentence with the perfectly correct grammar. In the languages with a free word order (e.g. Ukrainian), the theme can be found anywhere in a sentence. In Japanese, for example, the common place for the them is the beginning of a sentence, but other positions are possible too (see the link in the comments to this post for more information).
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.
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.