Topic (linguistics)

From Academic Kids

In linguistics, the topic (or theme) is 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.

The topic is also called theme, and the predicate that gives information on the topic is also called rheme.

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.

Many languages, like English, resort to different means in order to signal a new topic, such as:

  • 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 (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.

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