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Rheme and reason: Why is English always the Theme rather than the Rheme in our acronyms?

Why does English always get up front?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 April 2011


The position of ‘E’, for English, has always been at the forefront of all the acronyms of language learning and descriptions of world trends in English language teaching and acquisition, EFL, ESL, ELT, ESP, EIL, ELF, or second only to ‘T’ for teaching, TEFL and TESOL. We have become so used to seeing the letter ‘E’ out there in front, the Theme rather than the Rheme, that we do not even seem to question that position anymore. Despite developments in the study of World Englishes (Kachru, 1985, 1990, 1991, 2005; Jenkins, 2003; Bolton, 2005, 2006; Canagarajah, 2006, 2007, 2009) and a supposedly secondary role for so-called Native English and the Native English speaker, we continue to place the ‘E’ at the front, as though we have no option but to accept its primacy in every concept. If we always place ‘E’ at the beginning though, as the defining Theme, surely we are giving both it and its origin England a leading role in all conceptual beginnings. The Theme after all is always the principal actor, the familiar, whilst the Rheme is the unfamiliar and undefined object (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004), but what English is now, in its global context, is exactly that, the unfamiliar and undefined object. In the following article I will argue for a rethinking of our terminology, particularly regarding the use of the acronym ELF (English as a Lingua Franca), and how perhaps we should be thinking more carefully about our choice of acronyms in order to be more precise about our approach to the study of English in the changing world.

Original Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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