044 Thematic character of the subject in English


„In his account of the function of the subject in modern English Vilém Mathesius pointed out that whereas in Czech the subject has largely retained the function of agent, in English this function of the subject has been appreciably weakened in favour of that of expressing the theme of an utterance.“ Dušková – Studies in the English Language p. 273

Mathesius pointed out that there is a strong tendency in English to construe the theme (as opposed to the rheme) of the sentence as the subject.

Mathesius’s example:
Jan velmi dobře prospíval. Ve škole horlivě naslouchal každému slovu svých učitelů a doma mu pomáhal otec, kdykoliv mu byla nějaká úloha příliš těžká. Práce všeho druhu se mu velice dařila a říkalo se o něm, že pracuje stejně přirozeně, jako dýchá.

John prospered very well. At school he eagerly listened to every word of his teachers. At home he was helped by his father whenever he found his task too difficult. He was successful in any kind of work and he was said to be working as naturally as he was breathing.

Here Czech changes the subject five times, whereas English preserves the same (thematic) subject throughout the sequence.

In order that thematic elements may be construed as the subject, English is shown to employ a number of means, such as different types of the passive, perceptive verbs and other devices. Mathesius concludes that as a result, in English the subject of several successive sentences need not change. End of quote.

While this conclusion is described as questionable in more recent studies I find that if a translated paragraph sounds very odd for some unknown reason it is often worthwhile to at least try recasting it along these lines in order to make it sound more natural.

Further details in this Czechlist thread.

From Sentence complexes in Text – Tárnyiková

There is a tendency  in English not to change subjects in sentence complexes if possible:

He knew little and had to be prompted                                                                                                        Uměl toho málo a museli mu napovidat                                                                                                      Uměl toho málo a musel být napovidán

which, when seen from the text perspective, can be rather formulated as a tendency to preserve an identical agent in the addressee’s memory and contribute to a stronger cohesive network.

Every morning each patient was given a bed bath and had talcum powder applied to pressure points…                                                                                                                                                                             Každé ráno sestry pacienty umyly a zasypaly proleželiny pudrem…


From the point of view of text perspectivization, the English version is primarily event-oriented, focusing on „what was done to the patients“. The Czech translation is participant-oriented, focusing on „what the nurses did to us“, i.e. the patients, and foregrounding the nurses. This different „zooming“ is systematically applied through the entire text chunk.
From the text-perspective, the English passive can operate as an effective means of text cohesion, linking text across the paragraph boundaries and allowing the text producer to keep to the identical subject.

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