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Topic-prominent language

A topic-prominent language is a language that organizes its syntax so that sentences have a topic–comment (or theme–rheme) structure, in which the topic is the thing being talked about (predicated) and the comment is what is said about the topic. This structure is independent of the syntactic ordering of subject, verb and object, and may be marked by word order (typically using left dislocation to mention the topic as first thing in the sentence, followed by the comment), or by explicit morphology (as in Japanese with the clitic particle wa).

The difference between topic-prominent languages and non-topic-prominent languages is that topic marking is done syntactically or morphologically in the former, whereas in the latter it is often done through prosodic mechanisms such as intonation, stress, or similar suprasegmental cues.

Common features of topic-prominent languages

Many topic-prominent languages share several syntactic features that have arisen because of the fact that, 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 expletives or "dummy subjects" (pleonastic pronouns) 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
"That palm tree (topic), leaves (subject) are big."
(Mandarin) Zhège rén gèzi hěn gāo.
"This person (topic) height (subject) is very tall."

  • They do not have articles, 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 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:

làthyu nya ánà khù -a
Gloss: people topic dog bite -declarative
Translation: a. "People, they bite dogs."
b. "People, dogs bite them."


Examples of topic-prominent languages include East Asian languages such as the Chinese languages, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean English and Malaysian English. Hungarian, the Somali language, and Amerindian tongues like the Siouan languages are also topic-prominent. American Sign Language is also considered to be topic-prominent.

Mandarin Chinese

張三 已經 見過 了。 -> Original order: 已經 見過 張三。
Transcription: Zhāng Sān yǐjing jiàn-guò le. Transcription: yǐjing jiàn-guò le Zhāng Sān.
Gloss: Zhang San I already see-EXP RES Gloss: I already see-EXP RES Zhang San.
Translation: (As for) Zhang San, I've seen (him) already. Translation: I've already seen Zhang San.


魚は 鯛が 美味しい。
Transcription: Sakana-wa tai-ga oishi-i.
Gloss: "fish"- "red snapper"- "be delicious"-
Translation: As for fish, red snapper is delicious.


Miye ṡuŋkawaḱaŋ eya owiċabluspe yelo.
Pronunciation: miyé s^uNkáwakxaN eyá owíchabluspe yeló.
Gloss: be-the-one-1SG horse DET.PL catch-3PL.UND-1SG.ACT-catch DECL.male
Translation: (As for) me, some horses: I caught them. -> It was me who caught some horses (I caught some horses)


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