Topic is that part of an utterance about which something is said (the comment). Usually, the topic is given in the discourse, the comment is new information about it. The topic (or theme) is thus the part of the proposition that is being talked about (predicated). Once stated, the topic is therefore "old news", i.e. the things already mentioned and understood. For example, the topic is emphasized like this in the following sentences:
The dog bit the little girl. The little girl was bitten by the dog. It was the little girl that the dog bit. The little girl, the dog bit her.
One test for determining the topic of a sentence A is by formulating a question Q to which A might be the answer. The topic should then be the information common to both Q and A.
Q: What about Mary? A: John is taking care of her
In this context her ('Mary') is the topic of sentence A.
A distinction must be made between the sentence-level topic and the discourse-level topic. Suppose we are talking about Mike's house:
- Mike's house was so comfortable and warm! He really didn't want to leave, but he couldn't afford the rent, you know. And it had such a nice garden in the back!
In the example, the discourse-level topic is established in the first sentence: it is Mike's house. In the following sentence, a new "local" topic is established on the sentence level: he (Mike). But the discourse-level topic is still Mike's house, which is why the last comment does not seem out of place.
- Stating it explicitly as the subject (which tends to be considered more topic-like by the speakers).
- Using passive voice to transform an object into a subject (for the above reason).
- Emphasizing the topic using clefting.
- Through periphrastic constructions like "As for...", "Speaking of...", etc.
- Using left dislocation (called topic fronting or topicalization, i. e. moving the topic to the beginning of the sentence).
There are some other languages, like Japanese, that work directly on a topic-comment frame. A new topic is always introduced in a specific way, like with a topic marker (Japanese uses a postposition, wa). The topic can be the subject or the object of a verb, but it can also be an indirect object or even an oblique complement of any kind. It is always dislocated to the front of the sentence.
Signaling the topic as such serves the pragmatic function of avoiding repetition. In many languages, old topics are replaced with a pronoun. Pro-drop languages like Japanese tend simply to delete the old topic, which is then left implicit throughout the discourse until a new one appears.
Consider the following data from Japanese:
(i) a Taroo-wa kaeru-o koros-i-ta Taroo-TOP frog-OBJ killed 'Taroo killed the frog' b Kaeru-wa Taroo-ga koros-i-ta frog-TOP taroo-SUBJ killed 'The frog Taroo killed'
In (i)a the subject Taroo is marked for TOPIC by wa; in (i)b Taroo is marked for SUBJECT by ga.
It is assumed that the topic may, or, in certain languages, must be placed at the beginning of the sentence. In some languages, the topic may also be provided with a specific morphological marking.
- Givón, Talmy. 1983a. Topic continuity in discourse: A quantitative cross-language study. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Li, Charles N./Sandra A. Thompson (1976): "Subject and Topic: A New Typology of Languages", in: Li, Charles N. (ed.) Subject and Topic, New York/San Francisco/London: Academic Press, 457-490.
- Reinhart, T. 1981. Pragmatics and linguistics: An analysis of sentence topics., Philosophica 27, 53-94
- Topicalization In Moundsbar: a humorous look at a ficitonal example of extreme topicalization.
- Utrecht Lexicon of Linguistics
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