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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, like Japanese and Korean, 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 of subject, verb and object.
Common features of topic-prominent languages
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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 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.
- 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/这个人 个子 很高。
- "This person (topic) height (subject) 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.  the Somali language, 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 (see Brazilian Portuguese#Topic-prominent language). American Sign Language is also considered to be topic-prominent.
|Transcription:||Zhāng Sān||wǒ||yǐjing||jiàn-guò||le.||Transcription:||wǒ||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.|
|* 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.|
|Gloss:||"fish"-TOP||"red snapper"-NOM||"delicious"-NPST||"it is"-V|
|Translation:||"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).|
|Translation:||(As for) me, some horses: I caught them. -> It was me who caught some horses (I caught some horses)|
- Li, Charles N.; Thompson, Sandra A. (1976). "Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Language". In Charles N. Li. Subject and Topic. New York: Academic Press. p. 475. ISBN 978-0-12-447350-8.
- Rosen, Sara Thomas (2007). "Structured Events, Structured Discourse". In Ramchand & Reiss. The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Interfaces. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-924745-5.
- Pontes, E. (1987). O tópico no português do Brasil. Pontes Editores.
- "As Construções De Tópico No Português Do Brasil: Uma Análise Sintático-Discursiva Em Tempo Real". Filologia.org.br. Retrieved 2012-12-24.
- 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.