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Prague School Linguistics

  The Prague School of linguistics was inspired by Vilem Mathesius (1882 - 1945) and given prominence by one of the most influential linguists of the 20th century, , Roman Jakobson (1896 - 1982). Central to their approach was the belief that linguistic theory should go beyond the mere description of linguistic structure to explain the functions fulfilled by linguistic forms. For example, a great many sentences build on information which is already known (theme) and provide some new information on that topic (rheme). And unless an unusual stylistic effect is required, the functional requirements of the sentence are fulfilled grammatically when the syntax allows the theme to precede the rheme.

(1) Matthew hid the chocolates.

(2) The chocolates were hidden by Matthew.

We would expect to find the active sentence (1) in a discourse in which the identity of Matthew was already established. The phrase ‘hid the chocolates’, then, provides new information. If, however, the identity of Matthew is novel information, then an English speaker might well resort to the passive structure, as in (2), so as to maintain the theme-rheme order. Not all languages make use of the passive in this way, but the syntactic choice that is made will reflect the functional requirements of the sentence. The Prague School also developed the functional approach to language with notable success in the field of phonology, and many of the concepts have been absorbed within linguistic theory in general. MS



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