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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Theme & Rheme

The Theme of the clause is:

the element that serves as the point of departure of the message.

It is the Theme that helps us organise the clause as a message. Everything else is the Rheme. In English, the Theme is the first part of the clause, such as this example from H&M (p.90):

The duke

has given my aunt that teapot.

Theme

Rheme

The Theme can be identified as:

the first group or phrase that has some function in the experiential structure of the clause, i.e. that functions as a participant, a circumstance or the process

(H&M,p.90)

These are called topical Themes. Whatever follows the topical Theme is the Rheme.

Where

shall I put the pot?

Put

the pot on the table.

I

put the pot on the table.

On the table

I put the pot.

Did you

put it there?

Let’s

leave the pot there.

Theme

Rheme

More correctly though, the topical Theme marks the end of the Theme. It might also be the case that there are other elements that come before the topical Theme. We might want to foreground our opinions or feelings about the topic, in which case we might use an interpersonal Theme, or we might want to link to some other message, and so use a textual Theme. This cartoon from Footrot Flats is a good example of an extended multiple Theme:

Related image

NO = Textual Theme

REALLY = Interpersonal Theme (modal adjunct)

HORSE = Interpersonal Theme (vocative)

THIS LITTLE GUY = Topical Theme

Now that we can identify a topical Theme, the next element is the Rheme:

IS MY COUSIN MIGUEL FROM CHIHUAHUA = Rheme

In extended longer text, the Theme also enables us to repackage discourse as a message. We can see this in the author bio for Murray Ball, where the preceding passage is repackaged into the following Theme (underlined):

…for a while it seemed that his cartoons would serve only to agitate – All this changed in the mid-1970s

Activity: Expression and new information

A difficulty for all levels is recognising what is presented as new information within the clause. New information comes through stress in the Expression stratum and differs from the Theme – Rheme distinction of the clause. Here is a short activity to get learners focusing on new information in a simple dialogue. The dialogues all feature a repetition of the same lexico-grammatical clause but the focus of the new information shifts in each case. Learners could try predicting where the stress might fall and then work with a teacher to discuss why it changes. The dialogues are below (possible stress in bold):

Dialogue 1:

A: What‘s your name?

B: It’s Bob. What’s your name?

A: It’s Jane.

Dialogue 2:

A: How old are you?

B: I’m 24. How old are you?

A: I‘m 25.

Dialogue 3:

A: What do you do?

B: I’m a doctor. What do you do?

A: I‘m a lawyer.

Dialogue 4:

A: Where are you from?

B: I’m from Sydney. Where are you from?

A: I‘m from London.