Topic-prominent language

Last updated

A topic-prominent language is a language that organizes its syntax 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, such as Korean and Japanese, from subject-prominent languages, such as 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 of subject, verb and object.

Common features

Many topic-prominent languages share several syntactic features that have arisen because the languages have sentences that are structured around topics, rather than subjects and objects:

這個人 個子 很高。 这个人 个子 很高。
zhège rén gèzi hěn gāo
"This person (topic) height (subject) very tall."
その ヤシは 葉っぱが 大きい。
sono yashi-wa happa-ga ookii
"That palm tree (topic) leaves (subject) are big."

The Lolo–Burmese language Lisu has been described as highly topic-prominent, [1] 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." [2] This ambiguity is demonstrated in the following example: [1]

a. "People, they bite dogs."
b. "People, dogs bite them."


Examples of topic-prominent languages include East Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean English and Malaysian English. Turkish, [3] [4] Hungarian, [5] Somali, and Amerindian tongues like the Siouan languages are also topic-prominent. Modern linguistic studies have shown that Brazilian Portuguese is a topic-prominent or topic- and subject-prominent language [6] [7] (see Brazilian Portuguese#Topic-prominent language). American Sign Language is also considered to be topic-prominent. [8]

Mandarin Chinese

張三已經見過了。Usual order*:已經見過張三了。
Zhāng Sānyǐjingjiàn-guòleyǐjingjiàn-guòZhāng Sānle
Zhang SanIalreadysee-EXPRESIalreadysee-EXPZhang SanRES
(As for) Zhang San, I've seen (him) already.I've already seen Zhang San.
*Remark: Mandarin Chinese sentences are predominantly SVO, but the language allows the object to be promoted to the topic of the sentence, resulting in an apparently OSV word order.


When it comes to fish, red snapper is delicious. / Red snapper is a delicious fish.


Miyeṡuŋkawaḱaŋ eyaowiċabluspeyelo.
be-the-one-1SGhorse DET.PLcatch-3PL.UND-1SG.ACT-catchDECL.male
(As for) me, some horses: I caught them. → It was me who caught some horses. (I caught some horses.)


You tomorrow again I'll see. → I'll see you again tomorrow.

See also

Related Research Articles

Functional linguistics is the approach to the study of language that sees functionality of language and its elements to be the key to understanding linguistic processes and structures. Functional theories of language propose that since language is fundamentally a tool, it is reasonable to assume that its structures are best analyzed and understood with reference to the functions they carry out. These include the tasks of conveying meaning and contextual information.

In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, usually including word order. The term syntax is also used to refer to the study of such principles and processes. The goal of many syntacticians is to discover the syntactic rules common to all languages.

Linguistic typology is a field of linguistics that studies and classifies languages according to their structural features. Its aim is to describe and explain the common properties and the structural diversity of the world's languages. Its subdisciplines include, but are not limited to: qualitative typology, which deals with the issue of comparing languages and within-language variance; quantitative typology, which deals with the distribution of structural patterns in the world’s languages; theoretical typology, which explains these distributions; syntactic typology, which deals with word order, word form, word grammar and word choice; and lexical typology, which deals with language vocabulary.

A noun phrase, or nominal (phrase), is a phrase that has a noun as its head or performs the same grammatical function as a noun. Noun phrases are very common cross-linguistically, and they may be the most frequently occurring phrase type.

In linguistics, an object is any of several types of arguments. In subject-prominent, nominative-accusative languages such as English, a transitive verb typically distinguishes between its subject and any of its objects, which can include but are not limited to direct objects, indirect objects, and arguments of adpositions ; the latter are more accurately termed oblique arguments, thus including other arguments not covered by core grammatical roles, such as those governed by case morphology or relational nouns . In ergative-absolutive languages, for example most Australian Aboriginal languages, the term "subject" is ambiguous, and thus the term "agent" is often used instead to contrast with "object", such that basic word order is often spoken of in terms such as Agent-Object-Verb (AOV) instead of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV). Topic-prominent languages, such as Mandarin, focus their grammars less on the subject-object or agent-object dichotomies but rather on the pragmatic dichotomy of topic and comment.

In linguistics, the topic, or theme, of a sentence is what is being talked about, and the comment is what is being said about the topic. This division into old vs. new content is called information structure. It is generally agreed that clauses are divided into topic vs. comment, but in certain cases the boundary between them depends on which specific grammatical theory is being used to analyze the sentence.

In linguistics, morphosyntactic alignment is the grammatical relationship between arguments—specifically, between the two arguments of transitive verbs like the dog chased the cat, and the single argument of intransitive verbs like the cat ran away. English has a subject, which merges the more active argument of transitive verbs with the argument of intransitive verbs, leaving the object distinct; other languages may have different strategies, or, rarely, make no distinction at all. Distinctions may be made morphologically, syntactically, or both.

In linguistic typology, ergative–absolutive alignment is a type of morphosyntactic alignment in which the single argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb behaves like the object of a transitive verb, and differently from the agent of a transitive verb. Examples are Basque, Georgian, Mayan, Tibetan, a few Indo-European languages and, to some degree, the Semitic modern Aramaic languages.

The syntactic pivot is the verb argument around which sentences "revolve" in a given language. This usually means the following:

In linguistics, word order typology is the study of the order of the syntactic constituents of a language, and how different languages employ different orders. Correlations between orders found in different syntactic sub-domains are also of interest. The primary word orders that are of interest are

In generative grammar, a theta role or θ-role is the formal device for representing syntactic argument structure—the number and type of noun phrases—required syntactically by a particular verb. For example, the verb put requires three arguments.

In linguistics, valency or valence is the number and type of arguments controlled by a predicate, content verbs being typical predicates. Valency is related, though not identical, to subcategorization and transitivity, which count only object arguments – valency counts all arguments, including the subject. The linguistic meaning of valency derives from the definition of valency in chemistry. The valency metaphor appeared first in linguistics in Charles Sanders Peirce's essay "The Logic of Relatives" in 1897, and it then surfaced in the works of a number of linguists decades later in the late 1940s and 1950s. Lucien Tesnière is credited most with having established the valency concept in linguistics. A major authority on the valency of the English verbs is Allerton (1982), who made the important distinction between semantic and syntactic valency.

In generative grammar, non-configurational languages are languages characterized by a flat phrase structure, which allows syntactically discontinuous expressions, and a relatively free word order.

Grammatical relation

In linguistics, grammatical relations are functional relationships between constituents in a clause. The standard examples of grammatical functions from traditional grammar are subject, direct object, and indirect object. In recent times, the syntactic functions, typified by the traditional categories of subject and object, have assumed an important role in linguistic theorizing, within a variety of approaches ranging from generative grammar to functional and cognitive theories. Many modern theories of grammar are likely to acknowledge numerous further types of grammatical relations. The role of grammatical relations in theories of grammar is greatest in dependency grammars, which tend to posit dozens of distinct grammatical relations. Every head-dependent dependency bears a grammatical function.

Two types of language change can be characterized as linguistic drift: a unidirectional short-term and cyclic long-term drift.

The subject-side parameter, also called the specifier–head parameter, is a proposed parameter within generative linguistics which states that the position of the subject may precede or follow the head. In the world's languages, Specifier-first order is more common that Specifier-final order. For example, in the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), 76% of the languages in their sample Specifier-first. In this respect, the subject-side parameter contrasts with the head-directionality parameter. The latter, which classifies languages according to whether the head precedes or follows its complement, shows a roughly 50-50 split: in languages that have a fixed word order, about half have a Head-Complement order, and half have a Complement-Head order.

In linguistic typology, object–subject–verb (OSV) or object–agent–verb (OAV) is a classification of languages, based on whether the structure predominates in pragmatically-neutral expressions. An example of this would be "Oranges Sam ate."

In linguistics, switch-reference (SR) describes any clause-level morpheme that signals whether certain prominent arguments in 'adjacent' clauses are coreferential. In most cases, it marks whether the subject of the verb in one clause is coreferent with that of the previous clause, or of a subordinate clause to the matrix (main) clause that is dominating it.

In linguistics, an argument is an expression that helps complete the meaning of a predicate, the latter referring in this context to a main verb and its auxiliaries. In this regard, the complement is a closely related concept. Most predicates take one, two, or three arguments. A predicate and its arguments form a predicate-argument structure. The discussion of predicates and arguments is associated most with (content) verbs and noun phrases (NPs), although other syntactic categories can also be construed as predicates and as arguments. Arguments must be distinguished from adjuncts. While a predicate needs its arguments to complete its meaning, the adjuncts that appear with a predicate are optional; they are not necessary to complete the meaning of the predicate. Most theories of syntax and semantics acknowledge arguments and adjuncts, although the terminology varies, and the distinction is generally believed to exist in all languages. Dependency grammars sometimes call arguments actants, following Tesnière (1959).

In grammar, the voice of a verb describes the relationship between the action that the verb expresses and the participants identified by its arguments. When the subject is the agent or doer of the action, the verb is in the active voice. When the subject is the patient, target or undergoer of the action, the verb is said to be in the passive voice. When the subject both performs and receives the action expressed by the verb, the verb is in the middle voice. Voice is sometimes called diathesis.


  1. 1 2 Li, Charles N.; Thompson, Sandra A. (1976). "Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Language". In Charles N. Li (ed.). Subject and Topic. New York: Academic Press. pp. 457–489. ISBN   978-0-12-447350-8.
  2. Rosen, Sara Thomas (2007). "Structured Events, Structured Discourse". In Ramchand & Reiss (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Interfaces. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0-19-924745-5.
  3. Typology of Language Grammars - San Jose State University
  4. A Typological Approach to Sentence Structure in Turkish - Yılmaz Kılıçaslan
  5. Kenesei, Istvan; Vago, Robert M.; Fenyvesi, Anna (2002). "1.12. Topic". Hungarian. Routledge. pp. 172–181. ISBN   978-1-134-97646-1.
  6. Pontes, E. (1987). O tópico no português do Brasil. Pontes Editores.
  7. "As Construções De Tópico No Português Do Brasil: Uma Análise Sintático-Discursiva Em Tempo Real". Retrieved 2012-12-24.
  8. Schick, Brenda Sue (2006). Advances in the Sign Language Development of Deaf Children. Oxford University Press. p. 36. ISBN   0-19-518094-1 . Retrieved 2008-09-23.