Some preliminary sets of notions leading to the problematics

Im Dokument MARRI AMON Initial and final detachments in spoken Estonian: a study in the framework of Information Structuring (Seite 31-35)


3.1. Some preliminary sets of notions leading to the problematics

from H. Weil to V. Mathesius.

In this section some sets of notions will be introduced that were elaborated in a syntactic framework by two researchers who can be considered as the pre-cursors of modern studies of information structuring, namely H. Weil and Ch. Bally.

Henri Weil (1844) is generally considered as one of the forerunners of studies about Information Structuring in modern times: already, in the 19th century, he was the author of a very innovative investigation about word order and information structure (without using this concept) – it is also worth noting that his thesis was totally neglected by his contemporary researchers. He claims that a distinction should be made between syntactic features and discourse level:

according to him, a phrase is organized according to a ‘march of ideas’, i.e.

there can be different languages with different syntactic constraints, but there is


always something that governs that organization. He also makes some very interesting remarks about the pre-eminence of oral language in the study of word order (ibidem: 7, 73), shows the importance of accentuation (ibidem: 76), the use of discourse particles (ibidem: 95) and thus can be considered as a precursor of modern linguistic studies in pragmatics and even in construction grammar (ibidem: VII).

When analysing examples from Latin, he uses the concepts of ‘point of departure’ and ‘the goal of the discourse’ as two central points of his theory. He claims that the objective movement in a phrase is expressed by syntactic relations and the subjective movement by the word order, which is why he considers the moment of enunciation as the most important (ibidem: 21). He formulates the basic rules of communication that are used in studies about Information Structuring: what has been later expressed by ‘given-before-new’

principle. When comparing the ancient and modern languages, especially French, he notes that both of them follow a certain course of ideas and a certain word order, but in modern languages word order is more subordinated to the syntax while in ancient languages these two levels are more independent thanks to the declensions (ibidem: 28). He also compares the order of complements that are typical to certain languages like German, French, ancient Greek etc (51–59) and comes to the conclusion (at the same time innovative and expressed in the spirit of his time) that the most perfect languages are those whose constructions are maximally free of constraints, i.e. Latin and Greek (ibidem: 64).

The terms Theme and Rheme (Thema and Rhema) were used for the first time by the German linguist H. Ammann (1928: 3).

Charles Bally, the best-known scholar of the Geneva school of Linguistics, instigated the use of two important notions that are still used in linguistics today: in his extensive description of French, Bally makes use of the distinction thème-propos, which he defines in these terms:

La pensée qu’on veut faire connaître est - /.../ le but, la fin de l’énoncé, ce qu’on se propose, en un mot: le propos; on l’énonce à l’occasion d’une autre chose qui en forme la base, le substrat, le motif: c’est le thème.4 (Bally 1944: 53)

He claims that in natural speech the propos can occur alone (ibidem). Bally also mentions the role of prosody when distinguishing thème and propos, which cannot be easily interpreted in written phrases, but whose intonation allows the distinction between the two.

He describes two types of sentences: the first, where the theme is given first :

‘le thème produit un effet de tension; il fait désirer le propos, qui prend toute sa

4 ‘The idea that we want to express is /…/ the aim, the end of the utterance, that we intend, in one word: the propos; we utter it about another thing that constitutes its basis, its substrate, its motive: this is the thème.’


valeur par cette préparation’,5 and the second type where the propos arrives as an explosion and the theme follows as an echo: ‘le propos éclate par surprise, et le thème est comme l’écho de cette explosion’6 (ibidem: 69).

3.1.1. (Psycho)logical Subject and Predicate and the word order This section delineates some principles elaborated by different linguists who attempted back in the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century to distinguish from a psychological perspective constituents that differ from the grammatical Subject and Predicate, but that contribute at the same time to conveying information in a sentence. Some assumptions about the sentence word order will also be mentioned in relation to the informational charge and the strategy of communication.

The two terms that were already used back in classic Greek philosophy (the subject of human judgement, i.e. first mention of an entity, and the predicate of human judgement, i.e. the statement that is made about it) were taken up by linguistics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and distinguished from the grammatical Subject and Predicate.

(Psycho)logical Subject and Predicate have been described as two language universals and unlike grammatical Subject and Predicate, which were described by using morphosyntactic means, they were regarded as having particular characteristics in relation to the information conveyed and the status of that information. Three criteria in particular can be pointed out, as shown by Gómez-González (2001: 8): contextual relevance, informational status and linearity. The first has been formulated by von der Gabelenz as ‘what the message is about’ or ‘the object of speech’ (1869: 378), the second has been expounded by Høffding (1910: 88) as the difference between the logical predicate, the accent it bears and the grammatical ‘point of view’. The linearity of the language has been examined by Paul (1880) and within his theory, he describes the psychological Subject as ‘the idea which appears first in the mind of the speaker’ (Paul 1975 [1880]: 124).

As will be shown below, these three ideas about (psycho)logical Subject and Predicate were taken up by Mathesius, who first formulated the problems that the Prague school dealt with later on, and this synthesis can thus also be viewed as the source of most of the confusions and later developments that these questions have undergone.

The constituent order has been often related to the informational charge and communicational strategy of the speaker; already the first studies did not overlook this aspect, for example von der Gabelenz (1891: 357) and Wundt (1900, 2: 363–4) argued that important entities tend to be more stressed and

5 ‘the theme creates an effect of tension; it makes desire the propos which takes all its value from this preparation.’

6 ‘the propos explodes with surprise and the theme is like the echo of this explosion.’


move towards the beginning of the sentence, while Paul (1975 [1880]) suggested the opposite, i.e. the more important the idea is, the more it should move towards the end.

Without using the terminology of the IS framework, Bolinger, 1952, when dealing with the position of adjectives in English, stresses the importance of the first elements of a clause from the point of view of ‘information structuring’. He refers to Poutsma’s argument about word order:

The first words of the sentence, like the cautionary words of a command, put the listener on the alert. As the discourse proceeds, he is kept in suspense, so that his mind is prepared to receive that part of the communication on which his attention should chiefly be centered. (Bolinger 1952: 1122, note 9)

However, in his approach, the important idea tends to come towards the end, when the content of the sentence is progressively revealed: he explains the ordering of the information in a clause by pointing out (deliberately simpli-fying) the dynamism of the information as the constituents follow each other in the communication:

Before the speaker begins, the possibilities of what he will communicate are practically infinite, or, if his utterance is bound within a discourse, they are at least enormously large. When the first word appears, the possibilities are vastly reduced, but that first word has, in communicative value for the hearer, its fullest semantic range. The second word follows, narrowing the range, the third comes to narrow it still further, and finally the end is reached at which point the sentence presumably focuses on an event – usually aided by a gesture, a physical context in which only one of several possibilities can be elected, /.../. (Bolinger 1952: 1118)

In this section were described some principles pointed out by researchers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries about conveying information in the sentence and about the word order in the communication dynamics within one sentence.

These were some works, among others, that led to the formulation by the Prague school linguists of the principles of Functional Sentence Perspective.

3.1.2. The point of departure for the problematics of Theme-Rheme: Vilém Mathesius

Mathesius (1939) defines the ‘starting point of the utterance (východisko)’ as

‘that which is known or at least obvious in the given situation and from which the speaker proceeds’, whereas ‘the core of the utterance (jádro)’ is ‘what the speaker states about, or in regard to, the starting point of the utterance’. The same author defines, in 1942, ‘the foundation (or the theme) of the utterance (základ, téma)’ as something ‘that is being spoken about in the sentence’, and


‘the core (jádro)’ as what the speaker says about this theme (cited by Daneš 1974: 106).

Following this and the propositions of the Prague school, the main problematics of Theme-Rheme and informational status have remained inside three crucial domains of interpretation (Gómez-González 2001):

1. semantic, i.e. ‘what the message is about’

2. informational ‘given/new information’

3. syntactic, linked to positional criteria in the sentence (initial position for Theme ).

With a rough generalization, one could argue that most of the problems in this domain are due to the distribution of these three categories between different domains of description of the language. Clearly it is difficult to avoid mis-understandings when these three criteria are used together, separately or combined with each other and by using some additional subcategories, within a rather intuitive approach, regardless of the scope of the units under investigation (sentence, textual approach; natural discourse/forged examples). Following the idea that these categories are to be defined by using a rather functional approach (as it is more a functional than a formal category) and that the formal criteria are not primary, it is also clear why the so-called ‘intuitive’ approach has been criticized so often: in linguistics, the preference is still given to formal,

‘measurable’ characteristics and that is what one tends to look for in a well-founded study. Some researchers have even suggested abandoning the idea of informational organization and replacing it with different domains where the formal characteristics appear. This type of choice can also be justified in some cases and the informational aspect can thus be overlooked, but here I support the idea that it is undeniably a cross-linguistic category; maybe the definitions lack precision, but it can set an appropriate frame for the investigation of different linguistic phenomena.

3.2. The Prague school and

Im Dokument MARRI AMON Initial and final detachments in spoken Estonian: a study in the framework of Information Structuring (Seite 31-35)