Topic marker

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A topic marker is a grammatical particle used to mark the topic of a sentence. It is found in Japanese, Korean, 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.

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 was speaking about someone else and then switched to referring to him or herself, they should say 私は (watashi wa), "as for me...". After that, it wouldn't be necessary to mention again that they were speaking 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 The が that would normally be there to mark the subject has been replaced by は.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 is.
(The) car is new.

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.

Classical Chinese: 者 (Zhĕ)

The suffix zhĕ is similar to the Japanese wa, but is used sporadically in Classical Chinese and only when an author wants to emphasize the topic. Zhĕ is usually omitted, unlike Japanese where it is required.

As an example, consider the sentence "陈胜者,阳城人也" (Chénshèng zhė, yángchéng rén yĕ), a famous sentence from the Records of the Grand Historian:

  • Literal translation: Chensheng is a Yangcheng person.
  • Semantic translation: Chensheng is from Yangcheng originally.
  • Word for word explanation:
    • Chénshèng: name of a 3rd-century B.C. rebel.
    • Zhĕ: Topic marker.
    • Yángchéng: name of a town.
    • Rén: person.
    • Yĕ: Is. (Ye means is, am, or are when used in conjunction with Zhĕ; it can mean other things when used independently.)
Classical Chinese
陈胜 阳城 也。
Chénshèng zhė yángchéng rén .
person name [topic marker]
town name person is.
Chensheng (who) is a Yangcheng person.
<Chensheng is from Yangcheng originally.>

Note: The structure of this sentence <zhė + yĕ> 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
陈胜 (是) 阳城 人。
Chénshèng (shì) yángchéng rén.
person name (is) town name person.
Chensheng (is) a Yangcheng person.
<Chensheng is from Yangcheng originally.>

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

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