Summary and Keywords
In the linguistic literature, the term theme has several interpretations, one of which relates to discourse analysis and two others to sentence structure. In a more general (or global) sense, one may speak about the theme or topic (or topics) of a text (or discourse), that is, to analyze relations going beyond the sentence boundary and try to identify some characteristic subject(s) for the text (discourse) as a whole. This analysis is mostly a matter of the domain of information retrieval and only partially takes into account linguistically based considerations. The main linguistically based usage of the term theme concerns relations within the sentence. Theme is understood to be one of the (syntactico-) semantic relations and is used as the label of one of the arguments of the verb; the whole network of these relations is called thematic relations or roles (or, in the terminology of Chomskyan generative theory, theta roles and theta grids). Alternatively, from the point of view of the communicative function of the language reflected in the information structure of the sentence, the theme (or topic) of a sentence is distinguished from the rest of it (rheme, or focus, as the case may be) and attention is paid to the semantic consequences of the dichotomy (especially in relation to presuppositions and negation) and its realization (morphological, syntactic, prosodic) in the surface shape of the sentence. In some approaches to morphosyntactic analysis the term theme is also used referring to the part of the word to which inflections are added, especially composed of the root and an added vowel.
1. Terminological Abundance
It is often the case that a scientific term is used by different authors subscribing to different approaches in different ways. However, it is not often that one term has very different usages in two distinct domains of a single field of study. This is the case for the linguistic term theme: leaving aside its very broad ‘traditional’ non-linguistic interpretation as “what the paragraph or text is about” (close to its dictionary definition as a “subject or topic on which person speaks, writes or thinks,” The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th ed., 1990, p. 1265), we are faced with two distinct approaches. One of them is related to the information structure of the sentence and is discussed here in Section 2. The terminological as well as notional creativity of linguists working in this area resulted in a picture not easy to survey; there is no wonder then that some critics have made rather harsh pronouncements regarding this topic. However, as documented in Section 2, the basic idea underlying the relevant treatments and analyses of this phenomenon is quite sound and the outcome of these inquiries offers most interesting insights into the function of language in communication and the forms by which this function is realized in language use. The other usage is related to the description of the syntactico-semantic sentence structure in terms of roles of the arguments of the verb and is reflected in the study of so-called thematic relations (theta roles and theta grids) within the Chomskyan Principles and Parameters theory (Section 3).
2. “Theme” in the Information Structure of the Sentence
2.1. Introductory Remarks
There are several terms used in linguistic literature for the relationships within a sentence that are related to its communicative function such as theme-rheme, topic-focus articulation, functional sentence perspective, topic-comment, old-new strategy, information structure, information packaging and several others in different languages, where the notion of a “theme” plays an important role. The abundance of terms and approaches to this phenomenon may even lead to rather pessimistic views such as that of Levinson (1983, p. x): “Terminological profusion and confusion, and underlying conceptual vagueness, plague the relevant literature to a point where little may be salvageable.” One of the aims here is to demonstrate that Levinson’s harsh pronouncement on the writings on theme-rheme or whatever terms are used is unjust, both from a historical as well as present-day state-of-the art point of view. In spite of the indisputable fact that there is a superficial terminological “mishmash” in the field (in addition to those quoted previously one can find such terms or dichotomies as psychological subject and psychological predicate, “movement of ideas,” Presupposition and Focus, Permissible Range of Focus, Information-bearing Structure, Background-Focus, rhematizers, focalizers, focusing particles, Association with Focus, and several others) the basic idea underlying the relevant inquiries is quite sound and appropriate. In an attempt to reduce at least some of the seemingly “conceptual vagueness,” the basic starting points and main contributions of three stages or directions may be compared: (i) psychologically oriented 19th-century insights (Section 2.2), (ii) the fundamental structurally oriented and systematic approach of the Prague school scholar Vilém Mathesius with the follow-up theory of Functional Sentence Perspective (FSP) by Jan Firbas et al. (Section 2.3), (iii) the theory of Topic-Focus Articulation (TFA) as developed within theoretical and formal linguistics by Petr Sgall et al. (Section 2.4). Other influential theories that work with a notion related to theme are briefly sketched in Section 2.5. One aspect of the correlation between the information structure of the sentence and the structure of discourse, namely the notion of scalarity, is discussed in Section 2.6.1
2.2. Pioneering Psychologically Oriented Studies
One of the first—if not the very first—comprehensive studies in what may be now called information structure of the sentence was Weil’s (1844; English translation 1887) monograph on the order of words. According to Weil, “Words are the signs of ideas; to treat of the order of words is, then, in a measure, to treat of the order of ideas” (p. 11, quoted from the 1887 English translation). The author recognizes two types of the “movement of ideas”: marche parallèle and progression: “If the initial notion is related to the united notion of the preceding sentence, the march of the two sentences is to some extent parallel; if it is related to the goal of the sentence which precedes, there is a progression in the march of the discourse” (p. 41). In other words, closer to the current understanding of the two strategies of the progress of communication, ‘march’ as the English equivalent of the French ‘marche’ refers to the ‘proceeding of ideas’, that is, the given sentence may either be linked with the topic of the previous one, or to its focus (goal). Weil also noticed a possibility of a reverse order called by him ‘pathetic’: “When the imagination is vividly impressed, or when the sensibilities of the soul are deeply stirred, the speaker enters into the matter of his discourse at the goal” (p. 45). Weil’s study was not left unnoticed by Mathesius (1907), who refers to him (though mistakenly by the date 1855), and to linguists around Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie, such as Gabelentz (1868), Paul (1886), and especially Wegener (1885), but criticizes this approach for the terms “psychological subject” and “psychological predicate”. Mathesius himself prefers to characterize the relevant issues by their relation to the factual situation from which the utterance originates using therefore the Czech (untranslatable) term “aktuální lenění” (literally: the topical articulation).
2.3. Vilém Mathesius and the Approach of His Direct Followers
In his criticism of the psychologically based studies, Mathesius (1939, but referring back to his own 1907 study) differentiates between the formal and the ‘topical’ articulation of the sentence. While the former structure concerns the composition of the sentence from grammatical elements (its basic elements being the grammatical subject and the grammatical predicate), the basic elements of the ‘topical’ structure are (i) the starting point (Cz. východiště) of the utterance (referred to by his followers J. Firbas as the initial point and J. Vachek as the basis), that is, what is in the given situation known or at least evident and from what the speaker starts, and (ii) the nucleus (Cz. jádro), that is, what the speaker says about or with respect to the starting point. The initial point of the utterance is often its theme, but not necessarily so. It should be noticed that these two aspects of the ‘initial’ point are reflected in the distinction made by M. A. K. Halliday between the thematic structure (theme-rheme) and the information structure (given-new) of the sentence; see Section 2.5.
Mathesius prefers to speak about basis and nucleus rather than about known (given) and unknown (new) information (Mathesius, 1941). Already in this paper, Mathesius notices that the initial point of the utterance, its basis, may contain more than a single element; the center of the theme is that element that is “the most topical” one, and the rest of the thematic elements are “accompanying elements” that lead from the center to the nucleus. In Mathesius’s views, the predicate is a part of the nucleus but on its edge rather than in its center and represents a transition between the two parts of the utterance. The first sentence of a text can be non-articulated; it may contain only the nucleus and the accompanying elements.
From this point of view, according to Mathesius, the word order in Czech serves to distinguish various degrees of importance of the elements of the same sentence. However, if the speaker is very much captured by the nucleus, s/he then does not pay respect to the natural ordering from known to unknown and s/he puts the nucleus on the first position of the sentence. Such an ordering is then called by Mathesius a subjective order, in contrast to the “natural,” objective one proceeding from the ‘known’ to the ‘unknown’.
Since Mathesius’s Czech term aktuální lenění větné is not directly translatable into English, Jan Firbas, the direct follower of Mathesius, in the study of this domain—apparently inspired by Mathesius’s use of the German term Satzperspektive in his fundamental paper from 1929—coins the term functional sentence perspective (FSP in the sequel). Firbas abandons the idea of a strict dichotomy and works first with a triad theme-transition-rheme. His introduction of the notion of transition is basically motivated by the function of the modal and temporal elements of the sentence (Firbas, 1965). Firbas then passes over to a more gradual view, namely to the concept of (a hierarchy of) communicative dynamism (CD in the sequel). He writes: “By the degree or amount of CD carried by a linguistic element, I understand the extent to which the element contributes to the development of communication, to which, as it were, it ‘pushes the communication forward’” (Firbas, 1971, pp. 135–136). Based on this notion, the theme is viewed (p. 141; compare 1964, p. 272) as “constituted by an element or elements carrying the lowest degree(s) of CD within a sentence.” In his later study, Firbas (1992, p. 93) corrects this definition, acknowledging that such a specification would imply that every sentence has a theme, which is not necessarily so, especially with sentences opening a text; he states that theme need not be implemented, while in every sentence there must be rheme proper and transition proper. In his survey of the Czech(oslovak) approaches to FSP, Firbas (1964) says that the basic distribution of CD would reflect what H. Weil called the “movement of ideas.” According to Firbas and all of his followers there are four factors of FSP that work in interaction: (1) linear arrangement (surface word order), (2) semantics (in the sense of the semantic character of a linguistic element as well as the character of its semantic relations, Firbas, 1992, pp. 41 and following), (3) context, and (4) prosody. A certain hierarchy is assumed (in the reverse order) for these factors, the highest position of which is occupied by the prosodic factor and the lowest by the “linear arrangement.” The weight of these factors may differ for different languages.
Jan Firbas has found a large number of followers who have made substantive contributions both to the overall conception as well as to several particular points. Its basic approach was followed also by Daneš (1974a) in his development of the idea of thematic progressions (akin to Weil’s “movement of ideas”) and in his pioneering description of Czech intonation with respect to the theme–rheme structure. A prominent Czech Anglicist Libuše Dušková focused her attention in several of her syntactic writings (most recently Dušková, 2015) on a comparison of the function and the means of expression of FSP in English and Czech. Several detailed studies of Czech word order with respect to FSP have been published by Ludmila Uhlířová, see especially Uhlířová (1987). Among Firbas’s direct students, the main role was played by Aleš Svoboda, who elaborated further the theory of FSP with respect to a more detailed hierarchization of the sentence elements within the so-called distributional fields and with his introduction of the notion of diatheme as a specific element standing between theme proper and transition in the CD hierarchy (Svoboda, 1981). An important continuation of Firbas’s insights concerning the relation between FSP and intonation is found in Chamonikolasová (2007).
2.4. Topic-Focus Articulation (Petr Sgall and the “Prague Theory”)
The Topic-Focus Articulation (TFA) theory, as proposed in the 1960s by Petr Sgall and then elaborated by him and his followers, was also inspired, similar to the FSP approach briefly described in the previous section, by the pioneering structuralist ideas of Vilém Mathesius (see Section 2.2). Although there are several similarities between FSP and the theory of Topic-Focus Articulation (TFA), TFA is not a mere “translation” or “rephrasing” of FSP; different terms are used with the intention of indicating certain differences in the starting points. One of them concerns the term theme. Instead, the term Topic of the sentence is used in TFA to refer to that part of the sentence that the sentence is about; the Focus, then, conveys information about the Topic. Such an understanding of the dichotomy does not exclude ‘hot-news sentences’, that is, sentences that bring the addressee immanently into the ‘deep water’ of the news. Thus, for example, in a situation when somebody enters the room and exclaims “KENNEDY was assassinated!” (capitals denoting the position of the intonation center) neither the president nor his death has been implied by the situation or context, and thus the sentence as a whole represents an unrecoverable piece of information and is analyzed as ‘topicless’.
On the other hand, along with the dichotomy of Topic and Focus, the TFA theory works also with the notion of communicative dynamism specified as the order of elements in the underlying structure of the sentence. This makes it possible to consider both the Topic of the sentence and its Focus as more finely articulated parts of the sentence. Within such an approach a contrastive part of the topic can be distinguished from the rest of the topic. Thus in the sentence Even the undergraduates attend only the MORNING lectures (the intonation center indicated by capitals) when following a sentence The students of psychology are getting worse and worse, the sentence part even the undergraduates attend constitutes the topic of the sentence, the part only the MORNING lectures being its focus. Within the topic part, the undergraduates constitute a contrastive topic (a topic proper, contrasted with other students of psychology). In a similar vein, the distinction between the degrees of communicative dynamism in the topic part of the sentence may account for the semantically relevant scope relations in such sentences as It is in the FIRST grade when few books are read by many students vs. It is in the FIRST grade when many students read few books. The order of the arguments of the verb read in the first sentence implies that the list of books that many students read is short (the set of same books), while in the second that there are many students who read only a small number of books, not necessarily the same set of books. The phrase in the first grade is the focus of the sentence in both cases.
As for the communicative dynamism in the focus part of the sentence, the TFA theory contains a rather strong hypothesis of the so-called systemic ordering claiming that communicative dynamism in this part of the sentence is reflected by a canonical order specified in terms of the types of valency slots (of the verb). Thus, for example, in case of the verb to give, which has three valency slots, the assumed order of these slots in the focus part is always Actor, Addressee, and Patient (Objective): John gave his Mother a bunch of flowers. If the order is different, then the shifted argument belongs to the topic: John gave a flower to his Mother indicates that the event of John’s giving a bunch of flowers belongs to the topic part (it is identifiable from the previous contexts, it is spoken about) and only his Mother is in the focus.
It should be noted that some later approaches to information structure applied fine-grained oppositions within the thematic (topic) part of the sentence, compare, for example, the notions of link and tail being two parts of the (back)ground of Vallduví (1992) and Vallduví and Engdahl (1996), which are close to the TFA distinction between topic proper and other parts of Topic.
From the point of view of theoretical linguistics, it is of primary importance that the Praguian TFA theory is the first attempt to integrate the description of what was later more broadly referred to as the information structure of the sentence into a formal description of language (Sgall, 1967).
TFA is understood as a linguistic rather than a cognitive structuring; the bipartition is based on the given–new strategy, but not identical to this cognitive dichotomy, as illustrated by the following examples (the assumed position of the intonation center here as well as in the sequel is denoted by capitals):
In the second sentence of 1, it is evident that the speaker refers to the window of the room, which can be characterized as an old piece of information; however, the reference to the window is placed in the Focus of the sentence: the speaker is telling about them (i.e., John and Mary) what they did. In the second sentences of 2 and 3, both Jim and Mary are (cognitively) ‘known’ because they are referred to in the first sentence, but only 3 is linguistically structured as being about both of them and the information in the Focus is the event of insulting. In 2, Mary is put into Focus, as a target of Jim’s insult. This interpretation is supported by the different intonation patterns of 2 and 3, as indicated by the capitals.
The dichotomy between the Topic of the sentence and its Focus2 is supposed to play an important role, especially with respect to the semantic interpretation of negation and its relation to presuppositions of the sentence (see examples supporting this argument). This dichotomy is specified as a bipartition of the sentence into what the sentence is ABOUT and what the sentence says about the Topic, in other words, the borderline lies between “what we are talking about” (the Topic) and “what we are saying about it” (the Focus). An interesting characterization of the notion of “aboutness” in relation to the notion of “topic” that is relevant in this context is given by Strawson (1964, p. 97): “Statements, or the pieces of discourse to which they belong, have subjects, not only in the relatively precise sense of logic and grammar, but in a vaguer sense with which I shall associate the words “topic” and “about”… . We do not, except in social desperation, direct isolated and unconnected pieces of information at each other, but on the contrary intend in general to give or add information about what is a matter of standing current interest or concern.” (See also Section 2.5 on the relation of presuppositions and topics.)
TFA is claimed to be a structure belonging to the underlying, deep syntactic structure of sentences because the differences in TFA are semantically relevant. The semantic relevance of TFA can be best documented by the relationships between TFA and the semantics of negation (see Hajičová, 1973, 1984; compare also Zemb, 1968; Kraak, 1966). In terms of the aboutness relation, the Focus (rheme) holds about the Topic (theme). In the prototypical case of negative sentences, the Focus does not hold about the Topic; in a secondary case, the negative sentence is about a negated Topic and something is said about this Topic.
Prototypically, the sentence 4 is about John (Topic) and it holds about John that he didn’t come to watch TV (negated Focus). However, there may be a secondary interpretation of a negative sentence, for example in the context of 5.
One of the interpretations of 5 in terms of TFA is that the sentence is about John’s not coming (= Topic) and it says about this negated event that it happened because he suddenly fell ill (= Focus).
As Hajičová (e.g., 1973, 1984) documented, there is a close relation between TFA, negation, and presupposition (see the original analysis of presupposition as a specific kind of the entailment relation by Strawson, 1952):
Both 6a and 7a imply that we won. However, only the negative counterpart of 7a, namely 7b, implies our victory, while 6b may appear in a context suggesting that we were defeated; see 6c. In terms of presuppositions, the statement that we won belongs to the presuppositions of 7 because it is entailed both by the positive and by the negative sentence, but not to the presuppositions of 6 as it is not entailed by the negative sentence.
In their early writings, Sgall and his colleagues (Sgall, 1967; Sgall, Hajičová, & Benešová, 1973; Sgall, Hajičová, & Panevová, 1986) present many convincing examples of pairs of sentences that differ only in their TFA and have different semantic interpretations. The outer forms of the members of these pairs may differ in word order, active or passive forms of the verb, or intonation patterns, but the common denominator of these differences is their topic-focus articulation. Since then it has become commonly accepted in the linguistic literature on semantic aspects of sentence structure that TFA is semantically relevant (one of the first to second this claim was Dahl, 1974). Some of the most frequently discussed examples hinting at the semantic relevance of TFA range from Chomsky’s observations, not at the time fully reflected in his model, through Lakoff’s sentences that had led him to formulate an alternative model of transformational grammar, so-called generative semantics, with different semantic representations for his 9a,b, to Rooth’s very influential analysis (especially in the circles of semanticists, but also among linguists of different streams):
The pairs of sentences under each number differ not only in their outer shapes or in their contextual appropriateness, but also in their meanings, even in their truth conditions. This difference may be attributed to the presence of quantifiers and their order (with an explicit quantification in 8 through 10 and a more or less explicit quantification in 11), but for 12 and 13 such an explanation is hardly possible. Also, an exclusive reference to the surface order of the sentence elements would not be correct, as illustrated by 10 and 13. A more adequate explanation is that based on the relation of aboutness: the speaker communicates something (the Focus of the sentence) about something (the Topic of the sentence), that is, F(T), the Focus holds about the Topic. In case of negative sentences, the Focus does not hold about the Topic: ~F(T).
The observations documenting the semantic relevance of the information structure indicate that the theme-rheme (topic-focus) structure of the sentence belongs to the domain of the (syntactico-) semantic structure of the sentence rather than exclusively to the domain of discourse (or, in more general terms to the domain of pragmatics), as sometimes claimed. However, this is not to deny the interrelation or interaction between the two domains, as discussed in Section 2.6.
A supportive argument for the semantic relevance of TFA can be traced in the discussions on the kinds of entailments starting with the fundamental contributions of Strawson. Strawson (1952, especially pp. 173 and following) distinguishes a formal logical relation of entailment and a formal logical relation of presupposition; this distinction—with certain simplifications—can be illustrated by 14 and 15:
If John’s children were not asleep, the sentence 14 would be false; however, if John did not have children, the sentence as well as its negation would not be false but meaningless. Thus 15 is a presupposition of 14 and as such it is not touched by a possible negation of 14. Returning to the relation of aboutness, one can say that 14 is about John’s children; for 14 to be meaningful, there must be an entity ‘John’s children’ the speaker can refer to.
The close connection between the notion of presupposition and TFA can be documented by a more detailed inspection of the notion of presupposition, exemplified here by sentences 16 and 17.
It follows from the prior discussions on presuppositions that Strawson’s (1964) example 16 is about the King of France and the king’s existence (referential availability) is presupposed; it is entailed also by its negative counterpart; otherwise, 16 would have no truth value—it would be meaningless. On the other hand, there is no such presupposition for 17: the affirmative sentence is true if the King of France was among the visitors of the exhibition, while its negative counterpart is true if the King of France was not among the visitors. The truth/falsity of 17 does not depend on the referential availability of the entity ‘King of France’. This specific kind of entailment was introduced in Hajičová (1972) and was called allegation: an allegation is an assertion A entailed by an assertion carried by a sentence S, with which the negative counterpart of S entails neither A nor its negation (see also Hajičová, 1984, 1993; and the discussion by Partee, 1996). Concerning the use of a definite noun group in English one can say that it often triggers a presupposition if it occurs in Topic (see sentence 16), but only an allegation if it belongs to Focus (see sentence 17).
2.5. The Notion of Theme as Reflected in Some Other Approaches to the Information Structure of the Sentence
The rich literature devoted to information structure reflects the intuition expressed under whatever terminology, namely a shift from the purely structural notion of ‘subject’ toward a more discourse-functional notion of ‘theme’ or ‘topic’. The relation between subject and topic was studied also from the typological point of view, resulting in a characterization of languages as ‘subject-prominent’ or ‘topic-prominent’ (compare, for example, papers collected in Li, 1976).
Apparently influenced by the Prague School functional approach to language, M. A. K. Halliday considered the thematic structure of a clause to be one of the aspects of the organization of the sentence as a message (Halliday, 1967a). According to him, the English clause consists of a theme and a rheme. Theme is characterized as “the peg on which the message is hung, the rheme being the body of the message” (Halliday, 1970, p. 161). Quite arguably, though, Halliday specifies the theme of a clause as “an element which, in English, is put in the first position” (1970, p. 161). In Halliday’s views, thematic structure is closely linked to another aspect of textual organization called “information structure,” which refers to the organization of the text in terms of the functions ‘given’ and ‘new’ (1970, p. 162). Halliday assumes that the thematic structure and the information structure are often conflated under the single heading ‘topic and comment’; he concludes that it is a matter of choice to associate theme with given and rheme with new but that there may be good reasons to choose some other alignment. Halliday (1967) adduces a brilliant example of the importance of the placement of the intonation center, pointing out the necessity to pronounce the warnings at the bottom of an elevator in London underground stations (example 18a) with the (normal) placement of the intonation center at the end and comparing it with the inadequacy of 18b with its funny interpretation “you should carry a dog.”
In a similar vein, the notion of theme was also analyzed by J.M. Zemb. Zemb (1978) claims that each statement is composed of three elements: theme, rheme, and a predicator that is a binding between theme and rheme (p. 394 and p. 403). What he called there “predicator” (prédicateur) became later “pheme” (see Zemb, 1984, p. 29). The rheme is specified as the verbal group and is characterized as a claim made about the theme (as “the concept,” opposed to “the percept,” the theme). The pheme is the binding between theme and rheme and states how the speaker claims (yes, not, perhaps …) that this meaning suits the part of the reality denoted by the theme. Applied to the sentence I didn’t visit Tom yesterday, under Zemb’s analysis, the theme is the speaker, Tom, yesterday, and the tense of the verb; the rheme is the act of visiting; and the pheme is the negative value and the modus. Zemb was one of the first linguists to apply the theme-rheme approach to an analysis of negation (a similar approach can be found in Kraak’s 1966 analysis of negation in Dutch) and to the specification of the position of the German particle nicht (Zemb, 1968). The examples with negation serve as an argument that the traditional division of the sentence into subject and predicate is to be replaced by a division into theme and rheme (p. 40); the German particle nicht is supposed to be placed on the boundary between these two parts (p. 90).
When discussing the possible semantic relevance of the distinction between active and passive in English, Chomsky (1957, pp. 100 and following) adduces the example quoted previously as 8. He refers to this example again in Chomsky, 1965 (p. 124, Note 9,) and hints at a possibility of assigning the difference between the two sentences to the differences in Topic-Comment structure. This idea is formulated even more explicitly in Chomsky 1965 (Note 32, pp. 220 and following,), where the author (referring to a suggestion made to him by Paul Kiparsky) considers taking the Topic-Comment relation as the basic grammatical relation of deep structure and suggests defining the Topic of the sentence as the leftmost NP immediately dominated by S (the node of the Sentence), be it in the deep structure or, alternatively, in the surface structure. He remarks that Topic and Subject may coincide but not necessarily so. Later, in discussions of the relation between yes-no questions and their “natural” responses, Chomsky (1971) introduces the notions of presupposition and focus. Though from the point of view of the common definitions of presupposition in logical writings his use of the term presupposition may be considered to be inappropriate, Chomsky’s interpretation of presupposition as “the information in the sentence that is assumed by the speaker to be shared by him and the hearer” comes very close to the notion of theme or topic as characterized previously. His focus, that is the information in the sentence that is assumed by the speaker not to be shared by him and the hearer, may then be roughly identified with rheme or focus. Chomsky’s approach is further developed by Jackendoff (1972), who formulates a focus assignment rule based on the definition of the presuppositional set as a well defined coherent set in the present discussion, which is amendable to discussion and is under discussion. He prefers such a specification to an existential one “there is something satisfying Presupps (x)” because the presuppositional set may be an empty set (as in Nobody likes Bill.).
In later studies within Chomskyan generative stream, the notion of topic and topicalization was applied in a more articulated way, also under the influence of the studies of languages other than English. Thus, for example, Rizzi (1997) comparing English, Italian, and other Romance languages distinguishes two kinds of articulation. Within the topic-comment articulation, topic is understood as a preposed element normally expressing the old information; comment is specified as an open sentence predicated of the topic and introducing new information. The presupposition-focus articulation is similar but interpreted very differently: the preposed element bears focal stress and introduces the new information whereas the open sentence expresses contextually given information, knowledge that the speaker presupposes to be shared with the hearer (Rizzi, 1997, p. 285). The former articulation is illustrated by 19, the latter by 20.
The notions of topic and focus are also prominent notions in the information structure analysis as presented by Lambrecht (1994). Lambrecht defines information structure as “that component of sentence grammar in which propositions as conceptual representations of states of affairs are paired with lexicogrammatical structure in accordance with the mental states of interlocutors who use and interpret this structure as units of information in given discourse contexts” (Lambrecht, 1994, p. 5). He argues against the understanding of topic (theme) as the first element of the sentence and presents the following definition of topic: “A referent is interpreted as the topic of a proposition if in a given situation the proposition is construed as being about the referent, i.e. as expressing information which is relevant to and which increases the addressee’s knowledge of this referent” (p. 131). In his understanding of information structure, focus is not simply defined as a complement of topic, because not all sentences must have a topic. Therefore, he defines focus as “the semantic component of a pragmatically structured proposition whereby the assertion differs from the presupposition” (p. 213). He admits that the sentence accent is very important though sentence accentuation is not a focus-marking device per se; the focus construal is determined by a number of grammatical factors, only one of which is prosody.
In the Meaning-Text Theory (MTT; for an overall presentation of this theory, see Mel’chuk, 1988) the notion of theme appears as one of the eight communicative oppositions within the Communicative Structure (SemS; Mel’chuk, 2001, p. 49). This structure is supposed to organize the meaning of the sentence into a message “from the viewpoint of its transmission by the Speaker and its reception by the Addressee” (p. 23); this is done by (i) specification of the division of the SemS of the sentence into (possibly overlapping) parts, called communicative areas, and by (ii) specification of a dominant node of each communicative area marked by one of a set of mutually exclusive values (one of the communicative oppositions, Comm-oppositions). The author distinguishes the following oppositions: (i) thematicity (rheme vs. theme), (ii) givenness (given vs. new vs. irrelevant), (iii) focalization (focalized vs. neutral), (iv) perspective (foregrounded vs. backgrounded vs. neutral), (v) emphasis (emphasized vs. neutral), (vi) presupposedness (presupposed vs. non-presupposed), (vii) unitariness (unitary vs. articulated), (viii) locutionality (signaled vs. performed vs. communicated). These SemComm categories can combine with each other within one SemS and may be obligatory ([i] and [ii]) or optional (the rest). In addition, they are assumed to form a hierarchy (indicated in the list by the order in which they are listed); Mel’chuk (2001, p. 74) admits that the hierarchy is not strict and that he is unable to sufficiently motivate the order of all the oppositions, which therefore is more or less arbitrary.
In early discussions on the integration of the topic-focus articulation into a formal description of grammar, the proponents intended to specify this aspect of the structure of the sentence in terms of the type of formal description they subscribed to. Within the framework of generative transformational grammar, Chomsky (1971, p. 205) defined focus as “a phrase containing the intonation center,” that is, in terms of constituency (phrase-structure) based description (see also Jackendoff, 1972, p. 237). Such a description served as a basis also for several studies on the relationship between syntax and semantics (e.g., Schmerling, 1976; Selkirk, 1984, 1995): the boundaries between topic and focus or some more subtle divisions were always supposed to coincide with the boundaries of phrases. Sgall and his followers (see Sgall, 1967) work within a framework of dependency grammar and define the boundary between the two parts on the basis of syntactic dependency, of the opposition of contextual boundness and of the left-to-right order of nodes. The boundary between topic and focus can then be characterized as intersecting an edge between a governor and its dependent (the latter may be a single node or a subtree), with the provision that whatever is to the right of the given dependent in the tectogrammatical dependency tree belongs to the focus, the rest to the topic (see Sgall’s definition in Sgall, 1979). A similar strategy can be traced in MTT: formally, the CommS is encoded by spotting out some areas of the semantic (dependency) graph and labeling each of them with a communicative marker. A dominant node of each area (of theme or rheme) is characterized as the node that summarizes the semantic content of the area.
However, the definition of focus (and of presupposition, in Chomskyan terms) as a phrase is untenable, because it is not always possible to assign the focus value to a part of the sentence that constitutes a phrase. This claim is supported by examples as those adduced by Hajičová and Sgall (1975): in the given context, the focus of the sentence is for a week to Sicily, which would hardly be specified as a constituent under the standard understanding of this notion. These examples, however, bring no difficulties for a dependency-based description.
It was convincingly argued by Steedman (1991, 1996, 2000a, 2000b, 2014) that it is advisable to postulate a common structure for accounting both for the syntactic structure of the sentence as well as for its information structure. For that purpose, he proposes a modification of categorial grammar, the so-called combinatory categorial grammar. A syntactic description of a sentence ambiguous as for its information structure should be flexible enough to make it possible to draw the division line between topic and focus also in other places than those delimiting phrases; in Steedman (1996, p. 5), the author claims that his theory works by treating strings like Chapman says he will give, give a policeman, and a policemen a flower as “grammatical constituents,” thus defining “a constituent” in a way that is different from the “conventional linguistic wisdom.” In other words, Steedman proposes to work with non-standard constituents, as can be illustrated by 22 with the assumed intonation center at the last element of the sentence: the division of 22 into topic and focus is ambiguous because the verb may belong either to the topic or to the focus part of the sentence.
Steedman’s studies of syntax-semantics interface are based on the recognition of the theme and the rheme components of the sentence. In his understanding of theme and rheme Steedman (2008, p. 246) specifies theme informally as the part of the sentence corresponding to a question or topic that is presupposed by the speaker, and rheme as the part of the utterance that constitutes the speaker’s novel contribution on that question or topic. In accordance with these structural properties he develops new semantics for intonation structure that are fully integrated into his Combinatory Categorial Grammar (Steedman, 2000b, 2014).
It is interesting to note that the semantic analysis sketched briefly previously is highly influenced by the prosodic factors. The study of the relation of prosody and the theme-rheme structure (or related notions) actually dates back to Bolinger’s (1958, 1961) early studies and to Halliday (1967). Since then, this issue has been a matter of studies by several other linguists. To name just a few, consider, for example, the distinction between the A and the B contours made by Jackendoff (1972), the influential comprehensive study on the relation between sound and structure by Selkirk (1984), or the more particular treatments by Gussenhoven (1983, 1984), Büring (1997, 1999), Lee (2008), and others.
The phenomena related to those just discussed soon became a center of interest of logical semanticists, namely in the analysis of the interconnections between the topic-focus structure of the sentences and their truth-conditional interpretation. The work mainly concentrated on the analysis of constructions in combination with the so-called focus-sensitive particles (such as only, even) or negation or the adverbs of quantification (such as always, usually) and several other specific constructions. One of the first treatments along these lines, and the most influential for the future studies in this domain, was the doctoral dissertation of Rooth (1985); see example 10 repeated here for convenience.
The position of the intonation center indicates that in 10a, the adverbial always is associated with the noun movies and the sentence is interpreted as “it is always the movies Mary takes John to (i.e., not to other places),” while the interpretation of 10b is “it is always John whom Mary takes to the movies (i.e., not any other person),” that is, the adverbial always is associated with the noun John. A similar line of reasoning though within a different framework is followed by Rooth’s tutor Barbara H. Partee (see especially Partee, 1991; Hajičová, Partee, & Sgall, 1998), who analyzes structures with generalized quantifiers as two place operators whose arguments are predicates: the first argument provides the ‘domain’ of the quantifier or other operator and corresponds to the restrictor; the second is the nuclear scope. In principle, the division of a quantificational sentence into a restrictor and a nuclear scope, that is, forming together with the operator a tripartite structure, can be viewed as corresponding to the division of the structure of the sentence into its topic (the restrictor) and focus (the nuclear scope).
It should be noted that the increased interest in what can be generally called the information structure of the sentence has given rise to numerous scientific conferences and to several volumes of collected contributions to most different aspects of this issue, see for example, Bosch and van der Sandt (1999), Steube (2004), Fiedler and Schwarz (2005), and Lee, Gordon and Büring (2008).
2.6. Scalarity in Discourse
The information structure of the sentence is a good “bridge” toward a study of (at least one aspect of) the dynamic development of discourse; no wonder then that the terms used in discussions of information structure such as theme or topic (and especially focus) reappear in discourse studies as well. Thus, for example, Schmid (2007, Note 6, p. 135) mentions several views on how to put together salience and topic/comment analysis: one of them refers to Langacker’s (1991, p. 306) topicality factor (i.e., principles that guide speakers in mapping the participants of an event onto clause constituents representing different degrees of salience), another to Fillmore’s (1977, p. 78) salience hierarchy specified in terms of his semantic roles.
This, of course, is not a new idea; its first comprehensive treatment, though clad in psychological rather than linguistic considerations, was presented by Weil (1844) in his recognition of two types of the “movement of ideas,” namely, marche parallèle and progression, as mentioned in Section 2.1. In more modern terms, one can say that two adjacent utterances may either be linked by their topics (themes) or the topic (theme) of one utterence may be linked to the focus (rheme) of the preceding one (see the two basic types of thematic progressions in Daneš, 1974a). Two issues are relevant in this context, namely what in the sentence structure reflects its discourse anchoring, and how to combine the “dynamic” (communication-based) view of language and discourse with the description of (underlying) sentence syntax.
Both of these issues are actually addressed more or less directly in Prince (1981). The author recognizes three levels of givenness (pp. 225 and following) in speaker-hearer terms, namely (i) givenness in the sense of predictability/recoverability (referring to Kuno’s 1972 old-new information distinction and Halliday’s 1967 given-new information distinction but mentioning that the two notions are defined differently by the two authors), (ii) givenness in the sense of saliency (referring to Chafe’s notion of given-new information): given information represents “that knowledge which the speaker assumes to be in consciousness of the addressee at the time of the utterance” and new, “what the speaker assumes he is introducing into the addressee’s consciousness by what he says” (Chafe, 1976, p. 30), and (iii) giveness in the sense of ‘shared knowledge’ (referring back to Clark and Haviland’s characterization of ‘given’ as “information [the speaker] believes the listener already knows and accepts as true” and new as “information [the speaker] believes the listener does not yet know,” Clark & Haviland, 1977, p. 4). For clarity reasons, Prince uses the term ‘assumed familiarity’ rather than the term shared knowledge or givenness and defines a familiarity scale on discourse entities (p. 245) ranging from ‘evoked entities’ (be it situationally or textually, i.e., the entity is already in the discourse-model) to brand new anchored and ultimately unanchored entities. A similar givenness hierarchy is postulated by Gundel, Hedberg, and Zacharski(1993), intended to contribute to the understanding of how nominal expressions succeed in picking out a speaker/writer’s intended referent.
Based on Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) notion of accessibility, Ariel (1990) concentrates on the system of accessing NP antecedents; she believes that all context retrievals are governed by Accessibility theory. In her interpretation, Accessibility is a graded notion; the scale is viewed as continuous. In principle, she accepts Givon’s (1983) scale in the syntactic coding of topic accessibility ranging from the most continuous/accessible topic (zero anaphora) to the most discontinuous/inacccessible topic (referential indefinite noun phrase). She also follows Givon’s view (most explicitly pronounced in Givon, 1983, pp.17 and following) that the Accessibility Marking Scale cannot be taken as universal because it does not cover the full range of referring expressions in all languages, not even capturing all the possibilities in the language she concentrates on, namely English. Givon (1983, p.18) claims that “better and typologically more relevant predictions can be made by recognizing a number of scales each reflecting some specific means—be those word-order, morphology, intonation or phonological size.”
Lambrecht (1994) speaks about discourse register, specified as “the set of representations which a speaker and a hearer may be assumed to share in a given discourse” (p. 74). In the discussion that follows, he mentions Chafe’s (1976) category of identifiability and bases his analysis on Chafe’s (1987) idea of three activation states: active, semi-active (or accessible), and inactive (p. 93) and relates them to their formal correlates in the structure of sentences. From the point of view of the mental effort necessary to process sentences containing the given topics (compare also Chafe’s, 1987 low cost effort and activation cost in Chafe, 1994, and also the least processing effort as discussed by Sperber & Wilson, 1986), Lambrecht (p. 165) distinguishes the following scale of relative acceptability of ‘topic referents’ (going from the most to the least acceptable): active—accessible—unused—brand-new anchored—brand-new unanchored (compare Prince’s familiarity scale previously quoted).
Slightly different but yet related is the model of the local attentional states of speakers and hearers as proposed by Grosz and Sidner (1986, 1998), which is the basis of their centering theory (Grosz, Joshi, & Weinstein, 1995; Walker, Joshi, & Prince, 1998a). The centering mechanism is supposed to capture intuitions about the flow of discourse as presented by Chafe (1979) and other similar rather intuitive considerations about coherence of discourse. Each utterance in discourse is considered to contain a backward-looking center that links it with the preceding utterance (called ‘topic’ and referring mostly to the syntactic subject of the sentence rather than being related to the term ‘topic’ in the sense of topic-focus articulation) and a set of entities called forward-looking centers; these entities are ranked according to language-specific ranking principles (these principles are stated in terms of syntactic functions of the referring expressions). The highest ranked entity on the list is the so-called preferred center, that is, the most likely link to the next following utterance. The transition from one utterance to the following one is then specified by one of two basic rules, one of which captures the ordering of four possible transitions (see Weil’s movement of ideas or Daneš’s thematic progressions mentioned previously): the most preferred is ‘continue’, which means that the backward-looking center of a given utterance equals the backward-looking center of the preceding utterance and at the same time is the preferred center of the given utterance (the most likely link to the following utterance), followed by ‘retain’ (the backward-looking center of a given utterance equals the backward-looking center of the preceding utterance but is not the preferred center of the given utterance), ‘smooth shift’(the backward-looking center of a given utterance differs from the backward-looking center of the preceding utterance but at the same time is the preferred center of the given utterance), and ‘rough shift’ (the backward-looking center of a given utterance differs from the backward-looking center of the preceding utterance and is not the preferred center of the given utterance), in this order. The intuition behind this ranking of transitions is very close to that behind the notion of the low-cost effort: according to Fais (2004, p. 120) “utterances that ‘continue’ the ‘topic’ of a previous sentence in a prominent position impose a lower inferential load, and are thus more coherent, than utterances which relegate the topic to less prominent position or which change the topic.”
In order to answer the research question how to combine the “dynamic” (communication-based) view of language and discourse (and textual coreference) with the description of (underlying) sentence syntax, Hajičová and Vrbová (1982; for a more detailed treatment see Hajičová, 1993) introduced the notion of the stock of knowledge assumed by the speaker to be shared by him and the hearer. This stock, of course, is not an undifferentiated collection, but a hierarchized structure based on the different degrees of salience (activation) of its elements. This scale has to be reflected in a description of the semantico-pragmatic layer of the discourse and is basically established as an interplay between the morphosyntactic structure of the sentence (especially the forms of the referring expressions, be they full noun phrases or pronouns), its topic-focus articulation (considering the reference made in the topic or in the focus of the preceding and of the current sentence), and the recency of mentioning.
3. Thematic Roles
The original proposal of generative framework of linguistic description as formulated by Noam Chomsky in the late fifties and early sixties (Chomsky, 1957, 1965) worked with traditional grammatical relations such as subject, object etc. However, it soon became evident that such grammatical relations do not express certain obvious semantic facts. In order to overcome this semantic insufficiency of grammatical relations, two approaches appeared almost simultaneously, one formulated by J. S. Gruber and called ‘thematic relations’ (Gruber, 1965, 1967; see also Jackendoff, 1972) and the other put forward by C. J. Fillmore and called ‘cases’ (Fillmore, 1966, 1968).
The basic semantic notion in Gruber’s analysis of thematic relations is the notion of the Theme of a sentence. It should be noted that this notion had nothing in common with the notion of theme as applied in the theories of theme-rheme or topic-focus articulation (at least in its specification, though one may speculate—being aware of Gruber’s interest in the application of the notion of topic in his analysis of child’s language, see Gruber, 1967—about the origins of the use of this term). The confusion of these two interpretations of the term “theme” (and also the non-standard use of this term) is very aptly documented by the title of one section in Maldonado (2007, p. 833) Putting the Theme in Focus, referring to the so-called theme-in-focus strategy. This strategy is illustrated by the English be-passive construction in the sentence The town was destroyed: the town, as one of the arguments of the verb, is supposed to have the (syntactic-semantic) function of “theme,” and is shifted to the front position in the sentence, which is called by the author “the focus” (which, actually, in the majority of writings mentioned in Section 2 would be called “the theme” or “the topic”).
According to Gruber, in every sentence there is a Theme. Though Gruber does not present any explicit criteria for determining what is the Theme in a particular sentence, some overall characteristics follow from his analysis, as illustrated by the following examples (the assumed Themes are marked by italics):
With verbs of motion (examples 23–25 are taken from Jackendoff, 1972, p. 29; examples 26 and 27 are taken from Gruber, 1976, p. 37 and p. 39), Theme is defined as the NP understood as undergoing the motion. With verbs of location (examples 28–32 taken from Jackendoff, 1972, pp. 30 and following) the Theme is defined as the NP whose location is being asserted. The Theme may have the function of the grammatical subject, as in 23, 26, 28, and 32, but not necessarily so. Besides the Theme, which as a central relation gave name to the entire system of the so-called thematic relations, Gruber works with several other relations, such as Agent, Location, Source, and Goal.
Semantic considerations gave rise to a similar system of sentence relations called ‘cases’ (Fillmore, 1966, 1968); later the somewhat misleading term ‘case’, understood by the author as ‘the meaning of case’ rather than the morphological case, was replaced by the term ‘semantic role’. In his case grammar, Fillmore (1968) postulated a number of ‘cases’ or ‘roles’, such as Agentive, Instrumental, Dative, Factitive, Locative, and Objective (pp. 24 and following), having in mind that more of them might eventually be needed; none of them was called Theme. Under this conception, each lexical item (originally a verb) was supposed to be assigned a case frame, that is, a set of slots filled in by case roles associated with the (meaning of) the given lexeme. Thus, for example, the verb give was assumed to have in its case frame the roles Agentive, Objective, and Dative. The semantic roles of the arguments of predicates were understood as “characterizing a small abstract ‘scene’ or ‘situation’, so that to understand the semantic structure of the verb it was necessary to understand the properties of such schematized scenes” (Fillmore, 1982, p. 115). Case grammar was extended later to the so-called Frame semantics (Fillmore, 1982), which takes as a goal a uniform representation for the meanings of words, sentences, and texts. The labeled box notation initially suggested as an informal representation system for the lexicon was refined and used for the representation of grammatical constructions in the grammatical framework developed by Fillmore and his colleagues and called Construction Grammar (Fillmore, 1985, 1988).
The term Theme in the sense used by Gruber reoccurs in the notion of thematic hierarchy as introduced by Jackendoff (1972) and, still later, in the so-called theta-theory of Universal Grammar. The Thematic Hierarchy Condition (Jackendoff, 1972, pp. 42 and following) is stated in two subparts: first, the Thematic Hierarchy is defined in terms of ordering of thematic roles (1. Agent, 2. Location, Source, Goal, and 3. Theme), and, second, the condition on passive states that the passive by-phrases must be higher on the hierarchy than the derived subjects. The application of this condition thus predicts that the sentences $5,000 (Location) were cost by the car (Theme) as well as 150 pounds (Location) were weighed by the man (Theme) are ungrammatical because Theme is lower on the hierarchy than the Location.
T theory theta (thematic roles, θ-roles), is one of the sets of principles of the Universal Grammar (Chomsky, 1981), the task of which is to assign the theta roles (Agent, Theme, Goal, etc.) to syntactic phrases (see also Baker’s 1997 specification and discussion of the uniformity of theta assignment hypothesis linking conceptual and syntactic representations). The criterion for a well-formed logical form (the so-called theta criterion) requires that every argument (i.e., the noun phrase) carries only one thematic role and that a certain thematic role is assigned only to one argument. This criterion is actually in agreement with Fillmore’s assumption that it is not possible to assign two cases to a single argument, while Gruber in his theory allows an assignment of more than one thematic relation to a single argument. Thus in Gruber’s understanding, Charlie bought the lamp from Mary, the noun Charlie might be assigned jointly the roles of Agent and Goal, while in the Fillmorean framework only the role of Agentive would be assigned to this noun.
4. Communicative Function vs. Grammatical Relations
In spite of the abundance of terms used in writings on information structure of the sentence within different theories and approaches, and even though the term theme is used for phenomena relating to different aspects of the sentence structure, a more thorough investigation of the usage and of the interrelationships within and between the different areas leads to the specification of two main domains where this term is used: one relating to the communicative function of the sentence and one relating to the semantic character of grammatical relations. Both domains are on the borderline between a grammatical description and the semantic (and even cognitive) field (sphere), which leads to different standpoints and approaches. However, the analysis of the commonalities and differences may contribute to better understanding of the function of language.
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(1.) The term information structure of the sentence (introduced by Halliday  and adopted later by Lambrecht  and others) is used here as a theoretically more or less neutral term. In order to avoid misunderstanding it should also be noted that the terms theme and topic are used in this article primarily in accordance with the way the individual authors use them in their writings. However, in the accompanying text the two terms are used intermittently to refer to the same underlying notion.
(2.) It should be noted that in the early studies by B. Grosz et al. (e.g., Grosz & Sidner, 1986) the term focus was used exactly in the opposite sense, namely to refer to what is called here topic. In the later writings of the same authors (Grosz, Joshi, & Weinstein, 1995; Walker, Joshi, & Prince, 1998a) the term focus as referring to the topic (in the sense of information structure) is replaced by the term center, see Section 2.5 on the centering theory.