A topic-prominent language is one that organizes its syntax so that sentences have a topic-comment (or theme-rheme) structure, where 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 mentioning the topic first thing in the sentence, and then 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 systematically in the former, while the latter resort to various idiosyncratic means for topicalization.
Examples of topic-prominent languages are East Asian languages such as the Chinese languages, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean English and Malaysian English, as well as the African Somali.
Common features of topic-prominent languages
- 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. The Japanese passive voice has a specific connotation that restricts its use.
- They usually don't have "dummy subjects" (pleonastic pronouns) like English it in It's raining. Since topic-prominent languages do not consider the subject, but the topic, to be the most important part of the sentence, it may not matter if there is no apparent subject (see also null subject language, pro-drop language).
- They often have sentences with so-called "double subjects", actually a topic plus a subject, for example: Sono yashi wa happa ga ookii (Japanese) — "That palm tree (topic), leaves (subject) are big".
|Translation:||(As for) Zhang San, I've seen (him) already.|
|Translation:||This tree has big leaves.|
|Gloss:||"fish"-TOPIC||"red snapper"-SUBJECT||"be delicious"-NONPAST|
|Translation:||As for fish, red snapper is delicious.|
American Sign Language (ASL)
The topic of the sentence, that is the focus of the sentence, is put at the beginning. For example, in translating the English phrase "We are going to the store tomorrow", some possible ASL sentences, literally translated, could be:
- "WE GO STORE TOMORROW."
- "TOMORROW, STORE WE GO." (Topicalization, TOMORROW is the focus)
- "STORE, WE GO TOMORROW." (Topicalization, STORE is the focus)(Proper ASL structure, though, uses the time indicator first, so the proper ASL form would be the second one: "TOMORROW, STORE WE GO.")