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Topic Languages

This evidence shows not only that the notion of topic may be as basic as that of subject in grammatical descriptions, but also that languages may differ in their strategies in construction (sic) sentences according to the prominence of the notions of topic and subject.

Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson (1976)

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).

East Asian Student (2011)


In English we say “I like Couple sitting overlooking a lake. A page on another way we are directed - in this case by pronouns.

coffee”, nearer to the Mandarin would be “Coffee, I like”. Black labrador looking left. To a page on the empty field left for projection when pronouns are omitted. In ‘Topic Languages’, such as Japanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Hungarian and Singapore English, it is the topic that receives emphasis, while in ‘Subject Languages’ like English the subject of a sentence is promoted. Both types of language have topics and subjects, the difference is in how our attention is distributed. Grammars reduce ambiguity, but in structures like topic promotion, we can see there are other consequences. If the grammar of a communication can mould Man cutting large joints of meat with a clever. More extreme in these matters is the way language and 'nature' may or may not be allied. our attention, it is assisting in the evolution of our thoughts on the matter under consideration. Our thoughts, as they evolve hand in hand with our language, come to reflect the ways of our language, and so unconsciously we are nudged. Three women one with money in her hand. Another example of how grammar and thought may interact.

Often the interactions of grammatical structure and thought lead to clarity and efficiencey as we harness the power of our language. However, if English places the subject upstage of the topic that must have implications for matters of responsibility in discussions of ethical matters. Maybe we should be at least conscious of such influence.

In Charles Li’s collection of post-conference papers Subject and Topic he includes a paper by himself and Sandra Thompson entitled “Subject and Topic: a new typology of language” the quote is from p.459. In the ‘East Asian Student’, a web publication, the article on Topic Languages appeard on 29th October 2011. See:

The diminutive coffee cups were on the table of a famous coffee house in the Cafe Lâm chain in Hà Nội.

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Saturday 27th July 2019
(Re-written 20 March 2021)

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