Emulating Topic-Prominent Languages in English

25 Aug 2008

Abstract: English lacks the topical precision of topic-prominent languages, but with a touch of creativity, we can construct sentences that are almost as good.

On pages 181-182 of The Atoms of Language, author/linguist Mark C. Baker describes a feature of Japanese that is absent in English. English is a subject-prominent language. Its sentences are normally composed of a subject, a verb and frequently an object. In comparison, Japanese, a topic-prominent language, usually employs a noun phrase, clearly marked as the topic with the word “wa”, followed by a sentence incorporating this topic. Other topic-prominent languages include Vietnamese, Korean, Hungarian and (surprisingly) Singapore English.

Baker gives a few examples. In English, we would say “John read the book.” The Japanese would say


Note that the topic of a sentence does not have to be the subject; it can be the object:

English translation: “Regarding this book, John has read it.”

By moving the topic to the front of the sentenceLinguists call this left dislocation. Right dislocation is also possible: “I never liked it, sausage.”and marking it with a special word, this construction draws attention to the direct object in the sentence (the book) and away from the sentence’s subject (John).

The topic does not need to be a replacement for the noun or object; it can stand independent of the sentence, simply establishing the focus of the communication. An example:

English translation: With regards to fish, red-snapper is delicious.

The grammar of topic-prominent languages allows a specificity and focus that is not hard-coded into English. So, what can the English communicator glean from topic-prominent languages?

By emulating topic-prominent languages you can enrich your writing and speaking with dramatic effect and emphasis.

Say you are writing a scene for a screenplay. Your story is set in the backwoods of northern Alabama during the Prohibition year of 1926. The scene is between a pastor and his congregant. For the purposes of your story, you want to draw your audience’s attention to illegal liquor production, establishing it as a theme in your screenplay. Here’s one way to do it, inspired by topic-prominent languages:

Pastor: Son, if you want to improve your family life you had better lay off the devil’s spit.
Congregant: Moonshine…sir, I never touch the stuff!

Another way to be inspired by topic-prominent languages is by employing the passive voice. Such writing may elicit the ire of “passive voice snobs,” but as resourceful writers who judiciously employ all useful tools in our grammatical toolbox, we won’t let their unwarranted critiques bother us.

Consider the dry, matter-of-fact sentence written in the active voice:

The waves are pounding the shore.

It sounds like something you might hear a cable news reporter say while covering a hurricane. But, if we employ the passive voice, we create a very different “feel” to the sentence:

The shore is being pounded by waves.

By moving the direct object to the front of the sentence, we’ve sent our readers a subtle message that the shore, and not the waves, is most important. We’ve also conveyed a vulnerability about the shore not found in the first sentence.

English lacks the topical precision of topic-prominent languages, but with a touch of creativity, we can construct sentences that are almost as good.


Baker, Mark C. The atoms of language. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. “Topic-prominent language.” 1 June 2008. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topic-prominent_language> (22 July 2008).