2. INFORMATION STRUCTURING: THEORETICAL AND
2.1. The state of the issue: problems and criticisms
2.1.1. Terminological questions
The notions used in relation to this problematics have been used or are still being used in so many different studies and frameworks that they seem to be familiar to almost everyone, but different researchers fail to reach a consensus about the real scope of these notions. However this very general ‘recognition’ of these terms also causes many problems of understanding between researchers who, for a very long time, have been deploring the confusion about the notions that are referred to by different researchers who give them sometimes completely opposite interpretations. As pointed out by Mondada (1994: 27), one of the difficulties in this domain comes from the evolution of the observation of linguistic data: firstly, the notions of Topic (Theme) has been developed in the framework of a linguistics that dealt with sentence, then with utterance, and following that it became clear that analysing these phenomena in natural oral speech, especially in longer excerpts, is much more complicated than dealing with sentences.
I have extracted some information from a general synthetic table by Gómez-González (2001: 6–7) in order to demonstrate that the scope and the repartition of the terms that have been used by different researchers do not coincide in
most cases (the choice was made in order to make reference mainly to the authors that are mentioned in the current thesis); the definitional criteria and oppositions are divergent as well. I have not inserted more recent references to this table, as it is given for demonstration purpose only, and is not provided as exhaustive information about recent works in the domain.
Types of terms Terms used References
Gradient terms Given/Known/Salient Vs New/Unknown Non-salient information
Chafe (1976, 1987, 1994), Beaugrande & Dressler (1981), Givón (1988, 1992), Gundel et al.
Bound vs Free (information) Firbas (1964, 1974, 1992) Bipolar terms Dynamic vs less Dynamic
Theme (vs Rheme, Focus,
Topic (vs Comment/Focus) Hockett (1958), Gundel (1985, 1988b), Li & Thompson (1976),
Focus/assertion Fillmore (1968), Kuno (1976), Dik (1978, 1997), Ulrich (1985), Sasse (1987)
When moving from one linguistic area or tradition to another, the problems of transposition and translation of terms cannot be neglected. In the present study, as well as works published in English, studies in French will also be taken into account. However, the focus will not be on translation problems, but rather on the respective contributions of complementary studies or innovative approaches that are useful in the present framework. In the French-speaking tradition, even if the study of H. Weil (1844) did not meet a great response in his con-temporaries’ works, the same cannot be said about Ch. Bally (1944), whose syntactical account had important repercussions and made the respective terms (thème, propos) familiar to a larger circle of (mostly) French-speaking scholars before the works of the Prague school were made available in English. The Prague school linguists took over the terms Theme and Rheme coined by Ammann in 1928 (Thema/Rhema), whereas the distinction used later mainly by American linguists topic/comment comes from Hockett (1958: 201). After that,
from the 1960s, the English-speaking community (which does not, of course, claim univocally their descendence from the Prague school) developed multiple approaches, as did the French-speaking tradition by maintaining the previous terms (Weil, Bally), sometimes by combining them with the terms which are mostly used in the English-speaking community. That is one of the reasons why one part of the studies published in French have been dedicated to the termino-logical questions, for example Galmiche 1992, Prévost 1998, Kleiber 1992, Fradin & Cadiot 1988 – which are useful for attempting a general overview.
An important distinction that will be clarified later is to be made at the outset of the present study: it concerns the distinction made between two main approaches of IS problematics: firstly, the textualist approach developed by Daneš, Firbas, Enkvist, Fernandez-Vest, Combettes, Grobet etc, and approaches that are more or less dealing with clause and sentence level (Lambrecht). In some cases these approaches can be complementary.
In the present study the accent is on the discourse-based approach that allows, in my view, to better encompass different phenomena that characterize the oral speech. The oral language can not be investigated as a linear process with a left side, a medium and a right side – rather, it is a dynamic network of references which are linked together in a communication process which takes into account previous exchanges, i.e. looks back and forward at the same time, as the discourse is constructed in a real-time exchange.
Not all constituents of IS have received equal attention: the most contro-versial is the notion of Theme or Topic, which has been most frequently evoked and has also the most divergent definitions. This interest has been explained already by Daneš (1974: 13):
It is obviously not by chance that the studies of FSP [Functional Sentence Perspective] predominantly concern the problems of theme (and not those of rheme – cf. the frequent term ‘thematization’ and the rarely used term ‘rhemat-ization’), in spite of the fact that it is just the rheme that represents the core of the utterance (the message proper) and ‘pushes the communication forward’
(Firbas): from the point of view of text organization, it is the theme that plays an important constructional role.
One set of problems that are evoked often when dealing with IS and its components, is quite well résuméd by Maslova & Bernini (2006: 69):
The genuine problem with identification of topic-encoding constructions – and more generally, with the hypothesis of existence of topic in general – is /.../ that there are obviously no topics in the ‘real world’. The topic status – assuming it indeed exists – is a language-internal, or, in slightly more cautious wording, mind-internal phenomenon without obvious counterparts in the perceived reality.
They give the example of the category of time, which is part of our experience of the world and therefore does not pose problems when even language-internal
or cross-linguistic variation is very important. If we consider the category of definiteness/indefiniteness, for example, some similarities can be found:
definiteness does not have a direct link to our perception of the world, but rather it can be described as a category of structuring the objects by our experience of the world (if not grammaticalized). In some languages, definiteness is gram-maticalized. The same can be argued about topichood: in some languages, so called topic-prominent languages, this category has dedicated markers.
Another set of studies focuses on criticisms about a particular characteristic of this domain: different needs and approaches have generated an exceptionally large number of terms and oppositions between them, so that it is quite difficult to find another domain where the proliferation of different notions is as big as here. In consequence, it is not surprising that many analysts deplore this situation where the notions used seem to be extremely polysemic, whereas it is the contrary that should be attempted in scientific reasearches.