A topic-prominent language
is a language that organizes its syntax
In linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages....
to emphasize the topic–comment structure of the sentence. The term is best known in American linguistics from Charles N. Li and Sandra Thompson, who distinguished topic-prominent
languages, like Japanese, from subject-prominent
languages, like English.
In Li and Thompson's (1976) view, topic-prominent languages have morphology or syntax that highlights the distinction between the topic and the comment (what is said about the topic). topic–comment structure may be independent of the syntactic ordering
In linguistics, word order typology refers to the study of the order of the syntactic constituents of a language, and how different languages can employ different orders. Correlations between orders found in different syntactic subdomains are also of interest...
The subject is one of the two main constituents of a clause, according to a tradition that can be tracked back to Aristotle and that is associated with phrase structure grammars; the other constituent is the predicate. According to another tradition, i.e...
A verb, from the Latin verbum meaning word, is a word that in syntax conveys an action , or a state of being . In the usual description of English, the basic form, with or without the particle to, is the infinitive...
An object in grammar is part of a sentence, and often part of the predicate. It denotes somebody or something involved in the subject's "performance" of the verb. Basically, it is what or whom the verb is acting upon...
Common features of topic-prominent languages
Many topic-prominent languages share several syntactic features that have arisen because, in these languages, sentences are structured around topics rather than subjects and objects:
- They tend to downplay the role of the passive voice, if a passive construction exists at all, since the main idea of passivization is to turn an object into a subject in languages where the subject is understood to be the topic by default.
- They usually don't have expletive
Syntactic expletives are words that perform a syntactic role but contribute nothing to meaning. Expletive subjects are part of the grammar of many non-pro-drop languages such as English, whose clauses normally require overt provision of subject even when the subject can be pragmatically inferred...
s or "dummy subjects" (pleonastic pronoun
A dummy pronoun is a type of pronoun used in non-pro-drop languages, such as English....
s) like English it in It's raining.
- They often have sentences with so-called "double subjects", actually a topic plus a subject. For example, the following sentence patterns are common in topic prominent languages:
- (Japanese) Sono yashi-wa happa-ga ookii.
- その ヤシは 葉っぱが 大きい。
- "That palm tree (topic) leaves (subject) are big."
- (Mandarin) Zhège rén gèzi hěn gāo.
- 這個人 個子 很高。
- "This person (topic) height (subject) tall."
- They do not have articles
An article is a word that combines with a noun to indicate the type of reference being made by the noun. Articles specify the grammatical definiteness of the noun, in some languages extending to volume or numerical scope. The articles in the English language are the and a/an, and some...
, which are another way of indicating old vs. new information.
- The distinction between subject and object is not reliably marked
The Lolo–Burmese language Lisu
Lisu is a tonal Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Yunnan , northern Burma , and Thailand and a small part of India. It is the language of the Lisu minority. Lisu has many dialects that originate from the country in which they live. Hua Lisu, Pai Lisu, and Lu Shi Lisu dialects are spoken in China...
has been described as highly topic-prominent, and Sara Rosen has demonstrated that "while every clause has an identifiable topic, it is often impossible to distinguish subject from direct object or agent from patient. There are no diagnostics that reliably identify subjects (or objects) in Lisu." This ambiguity is demonstrated in the following example:
|| a. "People, they bite dogs."
||b. "People, dogs bite them."
Examples of topic-prominent languages include East Asian languages such as the Chinese language
The Chinese language is a language or language family consisting of varieties which are mutually intelligible to varying degrees. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages...
is a language spoken by over 130 million people in Japan and in Japanese emigrant communities. It is a member of the Japonic language family, which has a number of proposed relationships with other languages, none of which has gained wide acceptance among historical linguists .Japanese is an...
Korean is the official language of the country Korea, in both South and North. It is also one of the two official languages in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in People's Republic of China. There are about 78 million Korean speakers worldwide. In the 15th century, a national writing...
Vietnamese is the national and official language of Vietnam. It is the mother tongue of 86% of Vietnam's population, and of about three million overseas Vietnamese. It is also spoken as a second language by many ethnic minorities of Vietnam...
Malay is a major language of the Austronesian family. It is the official language of Malaysia , Indonesia , Brunei and Singapore...
Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia. Indonesian is a normative form of the Riau Islands dialect of Malay, an Austronesian language which has been used as a lingua franca in the Indonesian archipelago for centuries....
, Singaporean English and Malaysian English
Malaysian English , formally known as Malaysian Standard English , is a form of English used and spoken in Malaysia as a second language...
Hungarian is a Uralic language, part of the Ugric group. With some 14 million speakers, it is one of the most widely spoken non-Indo-European languages in Europe....
, the Somali language
The Somali language is a member of the East Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Its nearest relatives are Afar and Oromo. Somali is the best documented of the Cushitic languages, with academic studies beginning before 1900....
, and Amerindian tongues like the Siouan languages
The Western Siouan languages, also called Siouan proper or simply Siouan, are a Native American language family of North America, and the second largest indigenous language family in North America, after Algonquian...
are also topic-prominent. American Sign Language
American Sign Language, or ASL, for a time also called Ameslan, is the dominant sign language of Deaf Americans, including deaf communities in the United States, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, and in some regions of Mexico...
is also considered to be topic-prominent.
|| Zhāng Sān
|| Zhāng Sān.
|| Zhang San
|| Zhang San.
|| (As for) Zhang San, I've seen (him) already.
|| I've already seen Zhang San.
|| "red snapper"-
|| "it is"-
|| "Among fish, red snapper is [most] delicious" or "Red snapper is the most delicious fish," idiomatic Japanese for "Red snapper is my favorite fish" (because oishii is a subjective observation, not a statement of fact).
|| ṡuŋkawaḱaŋ eya
|| s^uNkáwakxaN eyá
|| horse DET.PL
|| (As for) me, some horses: I caught them. -> It was me who caught some horses (I caught some horses)