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SIL Electronic Working Papers 2007-010

Explorations in discourse topicality

Author  Dooley, Robert A.

Discourse topicality (and thematicity) is fundamentally a conceptual phenomenon, and this treatment attempts to bring insights from cognitive/conceptual linguistics to bear upon it, joining them with previous insights from functional approaches and field analysis. It addresses the question: How do addressees recognize the speaker’s intended conceptual organization of his discourse? The basic answer presented here is that the thematic organization of discourse involves both content structure (in knowledge management) and construals of that content (in attention management), and uses both formal and conceptual signals. Many common genres come with the expectation of coherence. A discourse unit’s coherence means that the addressee can construct a unitary mental representation (space) for it; this appears to require a discourse schema with a head. The head of a discourse schema—what the speaker is principally aiming to establish in that discourse unit—is a theme which is structurally construed; the unit may have other themes as well. Although a theme (or topic) may provide initial access to a discourse space, its principal function is to conceptually integrate the space, which it does in a particular way: each step in the discourse unit’s schema relates to the theme in a way that expresses the speaker’s intrinsic interest in the theme, during that discourse unit. Thus themes involve both conceptual organization (the schema) and intrinsic interest. Themes can be referential (discourse topics), goals, situations, propositions, or perhaps other types as well. Sentence (utterance) topics are best seen as discourse topics in particular conceptual functions. The establishment and maintenance of discourse topics generally depends on their hierarchical level: topics of paragraphs (minimal complete discourse units) are maintained by continual activation as well as conceptual structure, whereas higher-level topics may be maintained by conceptual structure alone. The association of themes with discourse units is a functional ideal to which discourse tends, reflecting production processes and guiding comprehension processes; this ideal is often not attained in casual conversation and other unplanned discourse, as well as in avant-garde literary techniques in which other goals prevail. Imaginative participation interacts with discourse topicality when there is a “subjective character,” through whose perceptions material is presented. A subjective character is often a discourse topic for the higher of two superimposed spaces—an accessor space, the lower one being the accessed space. In fact, the speaker can be discourse topic in the same way. A key issue in translation is what should be preserved of the source text thematic structure. Answers commonly depend on hierarchical level: source-text thematicity is often preserved on macro-levels, but micro-level structure often follows target language norms.

  Explorations in discourse topicality
Published  2007
Language  English [eng]
Subjects  Cognitive studies
Keywords  discourse schema; conceptual organization; thematic structure; Theme; Topic; Cohesion; Cognitive studies