A topic-prominent language is a language that organizes its syntax to emphasize the topic–comment structure of the sentence. The term is best known in American linguistics from Charles N. Li and Sandra Thompson, who distinguished topic-prominent languages, such as Korean and Japanese, from subject-prominent languages, such as English.
In Li and Thompson's (1976) view, topic-prominent languages have morphology or syntax that highlights the distinction between the topic and the comment (what is said about the topic). Topic–comment structure may be independent of the syntactic ordering of subject, verb and object.
Many topic-prominent languages share several syntactic features that have arisen because the languages have sentences that are structured around topics, rather than subjects and objects:
The Lolo–Burmese language Lisu has been described as highly topic-prominent, and Sara Rosen has demonstrated that "while every clause has an identifiable topic, it is often impossible to distinguish subject from direct object or agent from patient. There are no diagnostics that reliably identify subjects (or objects) in Lisu." This ambiguity is demonstrated in the following example:
|a. "People, they bite dogs."|
|b. "People, dogs bite them."|
Examples of topic-prominent languages include East Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean English and Malaysian English. Turkish, Hungarian, Somali, and Amerindian tongues like the Siouan languages are also topic-prominent. Modern linguistic studies have shown that Brazilian Portuguese is a topic-prominent or topic- and subject-prominent language (see Brazilian Portuguese#Topic-prominent language). American Sign Language is also considered to be topic-prominent.
|Zhāng Sān||wǒ||yǐjing||jiàn-guò||le||wǒ||yǐjing||jiàn-guò||Zhāng Sān||le|
|Zhang San||I||already||see-EXP||RES||I||already||see-EXP||Zhang San||RES|
|(As for) Zhang San, I've seen (him) already.||I've already seen Zhang San.|
|*Remark: Mandarin Chinese sentences are predominantly SVO, but the language allows the object to be promoted to the topic of the sentence, resulting in an apparently OSV word order.|
|When it comes to fish, red snapper is delicious. / Red snapper is a delicious fish.|
|(As for) me, some horses: I caught them. → It was me who caught some horses. (I caught some horses.)|
|You tomorrow again I'll see. → I'll see you again tomorrow.|