A distinguishing feature of pretty much all East Asian languages is that they are topic prominent. So if you’re studying Chinese, Japanese or Korean (or Vietnamese, Malay, Mongolian, Indonesian…) you’ll quickly discover that the word order of these languages doesn’t seem to obey the same rules as that of most European languages.
Simply put, the difference is that subject-prominent languages like English put the subject first (doer of the action), whilst topic prominent languages put the topic first (the thing the sentence is about).
What is a subject?
If you’ve studied languages before you’re probably familiar with what a subject is. The subject is the doer of the action in a sentence. It performs the action of the verb. In the sentence “John makes beer”, John is the subject, as he is the one doing the making.
All languages have subjects, but each has different rules regarding them. Most European languages are described as subject prominent, and have an SVO word order (subject, verb, object). The subject is usually placed first as the most prominent item.
Subjects range from very simple one-word nouns to more complex items such as noun phrases and clauses. Some example sentences with the subject highlighted in yellow:
The manager was drunk.
Drinking six glasses of whisky was probably a bit much.
That he got fired seemed slightly unfair.
What is a topic?
The topic of a sentence is whatever the sentence is about. It’s not a grammatical role like the subject, but a more pragmatic aspect of the sentence. The topic is the most important piece of information – it’s what the sentence is built around.
The topic is also known as the theme of a sentence, as it’s the general issue at hand. In a subject prominent language like English, the subject and the topic are usually the same thing. The highlighted parts of the sentences above are also the topics of those sentences.
But in most East Asian languages, the topic is often not the subject of the sentence. The two things are separate, and the topic is placed first. This is why they’re called topic prominent languages. See below for examples of topic prominent sentences.
Topic prominent sentences in English
Although English is a subject-prominent language, it does have ways of producing topic prominent sentences. These include terms like “as for” and “regarding”, as well as few structural rearrangements such as the passive voice, fronting and clefting.
Fronting refers to those odd sentences you come across sometimes where the topic has been moved to the front. They feel awkward because English is a subject-prominent language but their subject doesn’t come first.
A couple of examples with the subject highlighted in yellow, and the topic highlighted in green:
Chocolate, I like.
Americans, he can’t stand.
However, in topic prominent languages (like most East Asian ones), this is the normal way to arrange a sentence, with the topic first. Notice how these sentences only make sense in specific contexts in English. They’re not for general use, but used to contrast two things.
The other way this can be achieved in English is to use clefting, as mentioned above. Clefting involves putting a dummy subject “it” at the beginning of the sentence and using this to introduce the topic. Some examples:
It’s bananas that I like.
It was the small car that we were supposed to steal.
Again, these seem a little strange in English even if they are grammatical. But they’re this sequence, with the topic first, is the most natural sequence in East Asian languages.
What is a comment?
In topic prominent languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean, sentences are often built around a topic-comment structure, as referenced in the image above. The topic is given first, and then commented on.
You can see this in the topic prominent example sentences above. An evaluation or description of the topic is given after it.
This is quite intuitive. First you raise what you want to talk about, then say what you want to say about it. On a basic level, this is all you need to know about topic prominent languages if you’re learning one.
Features of topic prominent languages
Most East Asian languages are topic prominent, and they have a few features in common. As well as learning the basic topic-comment structure, it’s good to get a grasp of these points if you’re learning Chinese, Japanese or Korean.
The passive voice
Topic prominent languages tend to avoid the passive voice or reserve it only for adverse or negative events. This is true of the passive voice in Mandarin and in Japanese.
This makes sense when you consider what the passive does. It rearranges a sentence so that it’s now about the thing that received the action of the verb, rather than received it. In subject prominent languages this means the subject has to switch roles from doer to receiver, as the subject is the most important thing in the sentence.
In topic prominent languages, though, this isn’t an issue. The topic can be whatever the speaker wants it to be, so there isn’t as much need for a separate construction to make the subject receive the action of the verb. You just put the receiver of the action first, and it’s now the most important item.
Another feature of subject prominent languages is that they usually require a subject. This is particularly true of English, which has to insert the dummy subject “it” if no other subject is apparent (e.g. in “It’s raining.”) Really the topic of this sentence is the rain, but English can’t just have a sentence with no subject, so it inserts a redundant one.
Again, topic prominent languages don’t have this problem. Mandarin, Japanese and Korean are all known for frequently dropping the subject from sentences when it’s clear in the context. The subject isn’t the most important item in a sentence, so it’s fine to do without one.
As the subject doesn’t have to be the most important item in a sentence in topic prominent languages, they can play around with it a bit. One common example of this is the double subject.
This is when a sentence first brings up one subject, then brings up another one inside that. Together these form the topic.
This is actually the same thing as the issue of dummy subjects, described above. Topic prominent languages often drop out words if they refer to something already brought up in the sentence (a frequent use of “it” in English).
Sources and further reading
- Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Language – Li, Thompson (the guys who wrote the Mandarin grammar bible)
- Some distinctive features of Chinese – Bowdoin.edu
- Topic and Topic-Comment Constructions in Mandarin Chinese – Dingxu Shi