Topic marker

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A topic marker is a grammatical particle used to mark the topic of a sentence. It is found in Japanese, Korean and, to a limited extent, Classic Chinese languages. It often overlaps with the subject of a sentence, causing confusion for learners, as most other languages lack it. It differs from a subject in that it puts more emphasis on the item and can be used with words in other roles as well.

Japanese: は[edit]

The topic marker is one of many Japanese particles. It is written with the hiragana , which is normally pronounced ha, but when used as a particle is pronounced wa. It is placed after whatever is to be marked as the topic. If what is to be the topic would have had が (ga), the subject marker, or を ((w)o), the direct object marker, as its particle, those are replaced by は. Other particles (for example: に, と, or で) are not replaced, and は is placed after them.

The English phrase "as for" is often used to convey the connotation of は, although in many cases this sounds unnatural when used in English. It does, however, convey some senses of the particle, one of which is to mark changing topics. If a person was speaking about someone else and then switched to referring to him or herself, they should say 私は (watashi wa), "as for me...". After that, it wouldn't be necessary to mention again that they were speaking about themselves.

Example[edit]

In the following example, "car" (車 kuruma) is the subject, and it is marked as the topic. The が that would normally be there to mark the subject has been replaced by は. The topic normally goes at the beginning of the clause.

新しい です。
kuruma wa atarashii desu.
car [topic marker] new is.
(The) car is new.

In the next example, "now" (今 ima) is an adverb and would normally have no particle, but it is marked as the topic for emphasis.

新しい です。
ima wa kuruma ga atarashii desu.
now [topic marker] car [subject marker] new is.
Now (the) car is new.

Korean: 는/은[edit]

In Korean, (neun) and (eun) function similarly to the Japanese topic marker. 는 (neun) is used after words that end in a vowel and 은 (eun) is used after words that end in a consonant.

Classic Chinese: 者 (Zhe)[edit]

The suffix zhe is similar to the Japanese wa, but is used sporadically in Classic Chinese and only when an author wants to emphasize the topic. Zhe is usually omitted, unlike Japanese where it is required.

Example: 陈胜者,阳城人也 (Chensheng zhe, yangcheng ren ye; this is a famous sentence from the book Records of the Grand Historian)

Literally: Chensheng is a Yangcheng person.

Translation: Chensheng is from Yangcheng originally.

Word for word explanation:

Chensheng: name of a 3rd-century B.C. rebel. Zhe: Topic marker. Yangcheng: name of a town. Ren: person. Ye: Is. (Ye means is, am, or are when used in conjunction with Zhe; it can mean other things when used independently.)

Note: The structure of this sentence is much more similar to the Japanese wa + desu structure than to modern Chinese, where topic markers have been completely lost and are not used anywhere.

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