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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Topical Theme

Here is a sentence from the Wikipedia page for Japanese writing:

The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic kanji and syllabic kana

The part highlighted in bold is called the ideational, or topical, theme. These show the main topic, or what the sentence is about. Sometimes, sentences do not begin with the grammatical subject of the sentence. The topical theme can also be a prepositional phrase:

In modern Japanese, the hiragana and katakana syllabaries each contain 46 basic characters;

an adverb of time:

Even today Japanese high schools teach kanbun as part of the curriculum;

or subordinate clause:

when used as a suffix meaning “try out”, the whole verb is typically written in hiragana.

All clauses, however, must have at least one topical theme.

 

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

Theme-Rheme

As a message, the clause comprises two parts: the Theme, which “serves as the point of departure of the message” (IFG, p64) and the Rheme. In an unmarked clause the Theme (in bold) matches the subject with the rest of the clause being the Rheme:

  • I usually play tennis on Wednesdays.

It is also possible to highlight different parts of the message by placing them in the position of Theme:

  • Usually, I play tennis on Wednesdays.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually play tennis.

One point for EFL classes, however, is that the Theme that is chosen is one part of a network system. This means that the Theme simultaneously highlights what the clause is about and also delimits the scope of the clause. By saying “On Wednesdays, I usually play tennis” the speaker is implicitly excluding the other days of the week (this could be made grammatically  explicit through it-clefting – “It is on Wednesdays that I usually play tennis”). Similarly, by saying “Usually, I play tennis on Wednesdays” the speaker is opposing that habituality with some unusual event. The message thus feels, in a sense, incomplete and we would expect some additional information, such as “but today it’s raining”. Also often overlooked for EFL is that by saying “I usually play tennis” the speaker is implicitly excluding the other participants in the exchange. The Rheme is then adding information within the limits placed by the Theme.