ELTE BTK Magyar Nyelvtudományi és Finnugor Intézet

W. Balicza Klára (Budapest)

nyomtatható változat


Rheme and rhematic accent – Some remarks on the relationship between information structure and intonation in Finnish


Rheme is a central linguistic concept which, nevertheless, has at least two related but at the same time distinct referents. On the one hand, in the Hallidayean tradition of functional text analysis sentences or utterances are structured into a part that realizes what the sentence is about (theme) and a part that adds something about or comments on the theme (rheme). As Shore (2008: 38) points out, this division is primarily about the internal organization of the given utterance. On the other hand, studies on Information Structure (IS) sometimes use rheme as a synonym for focus, that is, the informative or newsworthy element in the utterance (cf. ISK 2004: 1308). In this case the emphasis is laid on the packaging of information into given or inferable and new units.

In the phonetic literature concerning Finnish intonation, rhematic accent denotes one of the three distinct levels of accentuation (Suomi, Toivanen & Ylitalo, 2006: 225, 239). It is distinguished from non-rhematic and contrastive accent and is believed to fall between the other two in pitch range width. It is suggested that rhematic accent would fall on the last lexical word in the utterance.

This discrepancy between the discursive and the phonetic use of the same word leads to difficulties when we attempt to study the relationship between prosody and information structure in Finnish. If the reference to rheme in ‘rhematic accent’ is to be understood in the Hallidayean tradition, we run into evident problems with any utterance containing more than one lexical word in the rhematic part: why should only the last lexical word in the rheme be accented rhematically? If, however, ‘rhematic accent’ means something like ‘focussed accent’, two questions arise. Firstly, in what ways are rhematic (focussed) accents different from non-rhematic accents in all-new sentences in which the whole utterance is supposed to be in focus? Secondly, is there any evidence for a distinction between this type of rhematic accent and contrastive accent in contexts of narrow focus?

The aim of the paper is to revisit the claim for rhematic accent and examine whether it is justified as an accentuation category. The study is based on data containing read-aloud dialogues by native speakers of Finnish.



ISK = Iso Suomen Kielioppi. 2004. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura.

Shore, S. 2008. ”Lauseiden tekstuaalinen jäsennys”. Virittäjä 112: 24–65.

Suomi, K. – Toivanen, J. – Ylitalo, R. 2006. Fonetiikan ja suomen äänneopin perusteet. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.


Language of presentation: ENGLISH