Interpersonal Theme

This is an exchange from the TV show ‘Friends’ (Season 1, Episode 4) between the characters Monica and Joey:

Monica: Hey, Joey, what would you do if you were omnipotent?

Joey: Probably kill myself!

Here we can see that certain elements of the conversation have been foregrounded reflecting the personal nature of the conversation. These are called the interpersonal Theme, and include:

  • Vocatives: “Joey”
  • Modal adjuncts: “Probably”
  • Wh- questions: “what”
  • Finite operators, like modals.

 

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Transitivity

TRANSITIVITY, along with MOOD and THEME, is one of the three “principal systems of the clause” (H&M, p.10) which the the central unit of lexico-grammar. The world around us is constantly changing and in flux. Think about the action in a game:

Image result for viv richards hitting a cricket ball

We can represent this picture is several different ways. The batter is Viv Richards, he is hitting the ball for six, or he is out. The system of TRANSITIVITY allows us to represent the world as this constant flow of experience, who does what to whom under what circumstances, and construe this experience as “a quantum of change in the flow of events as a figure” (H&M, p.213). There are three elements to the system of TRANSITIVITY as a figure:

Transitivity structures express representational meaning: what the
clause is about, which is typically some process, with associated participants
and circumstances (H&M, p.361)

We can thus represent the picture above as being composed of these three elements, centered around the Process:

Transitivity1

For EFL, viewing the clause from the perspective of TRANSITIVITY is particularly useful in highlight the differences between phrases that may appear the same to  a learner. For example, consider the two sentences:

  1. I looked up the building
  2. I looked up the building

While they have the same words, there are fundamental differences between them which can be explained through the transitivity. In sentence 1., the Process ‘looked up’ refers to searching on, for example, Google Maps, while the second refers to physically looking:

1.

I

looked up the building
Participant Process

Participant

2.

I

looked up the building
Participant Process

Circumstance

It can also highlight the differences between Participants and Circumstances, for example:

1.

He

is hitting the ball for six

Participant

Process Participant

Circumstance

2.

He

is hitting the ball for the West Indies
Participant Process Participant

Participant

 

 

EFL Listening Tasks

I must admit I find most EFL listening tasks a little strange. The usual format in most textbooks I’ve used is to listen to a conversation and then answer set questions about it. It is a conversation as product, with the student relegated to the role of observer of the text, rather than text as process with the student being an active participant in the text as it unfolds. In effect, it is teaching them the skill of eavesdropping…

SMH technology

Here’s a little example from the Sydney Morning Herald of new technology causing language change:

”Why is it that the new compact Herald eschews the words ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ in every article it presents?” asks Rod Blackmore, of Thornleigh. It’s because these days the paper appears in many forms, is read in various time zones and updated electronically throughout the day, that ”yesterday” and ”tomorrow” can cause confusion. Column 8 has fallen into line too, you may have noticed.

‘Truthiness’ and Expression

There was an interesting article on Huffington Post by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, about the word ‘truthiness’ which was first used by Stephen Colbert on his The Word segment to describe the ‘quality of knowing something in your gut or your heart, as opposed to in your head’. It turns out that this relative bias does actually have some scientific basis in psychology and neuroscience as Mooney describes it in the article. He goes on to discuss the possible differences between conservative vs liberal brains.

Interesting, but what really caught me from a linguistic point of view what Colbert’s use of Expression stratum to emphasize this difference. Here is his definition of Truthiness:

Truthiness is, ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

Note the difference in meaning between “I feel it”, where the mental Process is emphasized (the “emotional quality”), and “I feel it”, which highlights the self as Participant (“selfish”). The key for Colbert’s definition, therefore, hinges not on a lexico-grammatical distinction but on a phonological one. I imagine this difference would be difficult for most learners if they only consider Expression in terms of ‘sounding natural’ and not how it relates to the Content stratum.