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topic/focus or theme/rheme

From:Christophe Grandsire <christophe.grandsire@...>
Date:Sunday, February 14, 1999, 16:29
At 22:15 13/02/99 -0500, you wrote:
>At 10:16 PM 2/12/99 +0100, Kristian Jensen wrote: >>Alright then, me too! >> >>In the languages I speak: >> English: I love you >> Danish: Jeg elsker dig >> Tagalog: Mahal kita >> >>In my conlang, Boreanesian: >> Kele'aihkuh kih >> lit. "I'm your lover/endearer" >>or >> Ke'aihkih kuh >> lit. "You're my love/dear" >>or >> Kuhke'aihkih >> lit. "O you, my love/precious!" (addressing the loved-one) >> >>Once again, Boreanesian is highly sensitive to topic/focus. There >>are two ways of translating the English expression "I love you", >>depending on whether "I" or "you" is the topic/focus. In the first >>example, "I" the agent is topicalized/focused. In the next two, >>"you" the patient is topicalized/focused. The third way is the most >>intimate of focusing the patient. > >This is very interesting. But I'm a bit confused about what you mean by >"topic/focus". It's easy to be unclear about these two terms because >they're used in different ways by different writers. But most of the recent >linguistic literature that I've seen, they have very different, almost >opposite, meanings. The topic is what you're talking about; it's old, given >information. The focus is the new information that you're trying to convey >about the topic, or (as some people use the term) a part of the new >information that you're singling out for special emphasis. IIRC, Matt >Pearson once explained the difference by referring to the "as for" >construction and the cleft construction in English as examples of >topic-marking and focus-marking, respectively. In the sentence, "as for >John, he went to the library", John is the topic; John is who we're talking >about, and what we're saying about him is that he went to the library. But >in the clefted sentence, "it was John who went to the library", John is the >focus. The speaker is presupposing that the listener already knows that >someone went to the library, and is telling them who it was. (Though of >course those are both very marked constructions; most of the time in English >we just rely on intonation and context to mark topic and focus.) > >By these definitions (which I think are pretty standard today, although >they're not very precise), I have the impression that in Tagalog the trigger >can be either the topic or the focus. From some stuff I've read that wasn't >entirely clear, it sounded to me as if the trigger is normally the topic, >but can be made the focus by putting it before the verb. Does that sound >right to you? (I gather you're a native speaker of Tagalog.) And if so, >does Boreanesian work the same way? > >------------------------------------------------- >Tim Smith > > >The human mind is inherently fallible. It sees patterns where there is only >random clustering, overestimates and underestimates odds depending on >emotional need, ignores obvious facts that contradict already established >conclusions. Hopes and fears become detailed memories. And absolutely >correct conclusions are drawn from completely inadequate evidence. > - Alexander Jablokov, _Deepdrive_ (Avon Books, 1998, p. 269) > >
I don't like the words "topic" and "focus". They are particularly ambiguous for those who are not natives in English. I prefer more "international" terms which are "theme" and "rheme". The theme is what we are talking about, the rheme is what we say of it. And they always go together (the theme is sometimes absent. It is because the theme is _already_ known and the new information is the rheme. So the theme may be known with the context). With what you say, I think the topic is the theme and the focus is the rheme. The difference is that you can always speak of theme and rheme, not always of topic and focus. For instance, in the sentence "as for John, he went to the library", John is the theme, the rest is the rheme (the new information about John), but we can't say that the rest is a focus (it's not focussed on). In the other sentence "it was John who went to the library", the theme is "who went to the library" and the rheme is "John" (the new information: we already know that someone went to the library, and with this sentence, we learn that it was John), but we can't say that "who went to the library" is the topic. And in the sentence "John went to the library", we can say that John is the theme and the rest is the rheme, but there is neither a topic nor a focus. What I mean with that discussion is that topic and focus are not really terms of an opposition, but the theme and the rheme are. The topic is only the theme when it is focussed on, and the focus is the rheme when it is focussed on (you can see the ambiguity). So using the words topic and focus is IMHO somewhat ambiguous. Better talk of theme and rheme. Christophe Grandsire |Sela Jemufan Atlinan C.G. "Reality is just another point of view." homepage :