Topic marker

A topic marker is a grammatical particle used to mark the topic of a sentence. It is found in Japanese, Korean, Hindi, Quechua, Ryukyuan, Imonda and, to a limited extent, Classical Chinese. It often overlaps with the subject of a sentence, causing confusion for learners, as most other languages lack it. It differs from a subject in that it puts more emphasis on the item and can be used with words in other roles as well.

Korean: 는/은

In Korean, (neun) and (eun) function similarly to the Japanese topic marker. 는 (neun) is used after words that end in a vowel and 은 (eun) is used after words that end in a consonant.


In the following example, "school" (Korean"학교"; Hanja學校; RRhakkyo) is the subject, and it is marked as the topic.

학교 저기 있다.
Hakkyo neun jeogi e itta.
school [topic marker] over there LOC is.
(The) school is over there.

Japanese: は

The topic marker is one of many Japanese particles. It is written with the hiragana , which is normally pronounced ha, but when used as a particle is pronounced wa. It is placed after whatever is to be marked as the topic. If what is to be the topic would have had が (ga), the subject marker, or を ((w)o), the direct object marker, as its particle, those are replaced by は. Other particles (for example: に, と, or で) are not replaced, and は is placed after them.

The English phrase "as for" is often used to convey the connotation of は, although in many cases this sounds unnatural when used in English. It does, however, convey some senses of the particle, one of which is to mark changing topics. If a person were speaking about someone else and then switched to referring to themselves, they should say 私は (watashi wa), "as for me...". After that, it would not be necessary to mention again that the person is talking about themselves.


In the following example, "car" (, kuruma) is the subject, and it is marked as the topic. The が that would normally be there to mark the subject has been replaced by は. The topic normally goes at the beginning of the clause.

新しい です。
kuruma wa atarashii desu.
car [topic marker] new [masu-form of だ: copula verb (to be)].
(The) car is new.

In the following example, "television" (テレビ, terebi) is the direct object, and it is marked as the topic. The を that would normally be there to mark the direct object has been replaced by は. The subject, marked by が, is "child" (子供, kodomo). As before, the topic goes at the beginning of the clause.

テレビ 子供 見ます
terebi wa kodomo ga mimasu.
Television [topic marker] child [subject marker] [masu form of 'to watch'].
As for the TV, the child watches (it).

In this third example, "today" (今日, kyou) is used adverbially, and it is marked as the topic. Normally there would be no particle marking it as an adverb, and so は is simply added without replacing any particle. The subject, which is omitted, is assumed to be "I" (, watashi). If it were made explicit, it would be marked by が. As before, the topic goes at the beginning of the clause.

今日 学校 行きます
Kyou wa gakkou ni ikimasu.
Today [topic marker] school [indirect object marker] [masu form of 'to go'].
As for today, (I) go to school.

Okinawan: や

Similar to Japanese above, Okinawan, a Ryukyuan language closely related to Japanese, features a topic marker ya that serves exactly the same function. However, if the topic is not a proper noun or ends with a long vowel, it tends to merge creating long vowels such as wan ya > wan nee "I am".


あんまー ちゅらさん.
anmaa ya churasan.
mother [topic marker] beautiful.
Mother is beautiful.

Classical Chinese: 者 (Zhě)

Zhě is similar to the Japanese wa, but is used sporadically in Classical Chinese and only when an author wants to emphasize the topic. Zhě is usually omitted, unlike in Japanese where a topic marker is generally required. Note that although Zhě can be used as a suffix attached to a verb or adjective, transforming the verb or adjective into a noun, as a topic marker, its grammatical function is fundamentally different from that of a suffix and therefore cannot be viewed as a suffix.

As an example, consider the sentence "陳勝者,陽城人也" (Chénshèng zhě, yángchéng rén yě), a famous sentence from the Records of the Grand Historian:

  • Literal translation: Chen Sheng is a Yangcheng person.
  • Semantic translation: Chen Sheng is from Yangcheng originally.
  • Word for word explanation:
    • Chénshèng: name of a 3rd-century B.C. rebel.
    • Zhě: Topic marker.
    • Yángchéng: name of a town.
    • Rén: person.
    • Yě: Is. (Ye means is, am, or are when used in conjunction with Zhĕ; it can mean other things when used independently.)

Note that 者, as well as the sentence of "Chénshèng zhě, yángchéng rén yě," is romanized here according to modern Mandarin pronunciations. It is unclear how 者 and the entire sentence would have been pronounced 2,000 years ago (and what the proper romanization should have been).


Classical Chinese
陳勝 陽城 也。
Chénshèng zhě yángchéng rén .
person name [topic marker]
town name person is.
Chen Sheng is a Yangcheng person.
<Chen Sheng is from Yangcheng originally.>

Note: The structure of this sentence <zhě + yě> is much more similar to the Japanese <wa + desu> structure than to modern Chinese, where topic markers have been completely lost and are not used anywhere. As the following,

Modern Chinese
陳勝 (是) 陽城 人。
Chénshèng (shì) yángchéng rén.
person name (is) town name person.
Chen Sheng (is) a Yangcheng person.
<Chen Sheng is from Yangcheng originally.>

Note: <shì> can be omitted in some occasions.

Quechua: -qa

The topic marker "-qa" functions as a topic marker, and is added after a word. It is usually followed by the direct object marker "-ta". Other particles (for example:-pi, -wan, or -man) are not replaced, and can be placed after them. Depending on the conjugation of the verb, it can be omitted as well as the subject


In the following example, Tupaq is the subject, and it is marked as the topic. The topic normally goes at the beginning of the clause.

Southern Quechua
Tupaq -qa hatun runa -m.
person name [topic marker]
big person is.
Tupaq is a big person.

Hindi: तो

The topic marker तो /to/ in Hindi indicates either presuppositionally shared information or shift in thematic orientation[1]. It can come after nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs and even other such markers like the agreement/disagreement markers हाँ (hā̃) (yes) and ना (nā) (no), the emphasis markers ही (hī) (exclusive emphatic) and भी (bʰī) (inclusive emphatic), honorific marker जी (jī), limiters मात्र (mātr) (mere) and भर (bʰar) (just). However, if the topic marker तो (to) is to be used with a noun, pronoun, adverb, verb or attached to a postposition or followed by another marker then the topic marker must always be put after the postposition or the other marker and never before.

तुम तो अच्छे हो पर वो नहीं।
tum to accʰe ho par vo nahī̃.
You [topic marker] good are but he not
Literal: You are good but he is not.
Nuance: You are the good one but not him.
तुम अच्छी तो हो पर उतनी नहीं।
tum accʰī to ho par utnī nahī̃.
You good [topic marker] are but that much not
Literal: You are good but not that much.
Nuance: You sure are good but not that much.
नेहा तो अच्छी है।
nehā to accʰī hai.
Neha [name] [topic marker] good is
Literal: Neha is good.
Nuance: Speaking of Neha, she is good.

Mongolian бол, болбол

The Mongolian language is known to have topic markers. A common one is "бол" bol (in the traditional script: ᠪᠣᠯ), an abbreviation of "болбол" bolbol (in the traditional script: ᠪᠣᠯᠪᠠᠯ) but there are a few other words. These words have other uses as well.

See also


  1. ^ Kachru, Yamuna (2006). Hindi. John Benjamin North America. Philadelphia PA 19118-0519: John Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 108, 109. ISBN 90-272-3812-X.CS1 maint: location (link)

External links

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