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After a short update on rain in Wisconsin and ankle injuries, we try to make sense of the topic of topicalization and topic prominent languages.  Then we talk about Talmit, a language created by active Conlangery listener and commenter Roman Rausch

Top of Show Greeting: Grewa


Featured Conlang: Talmit (LCC talk, pdf grammar, more stuff)


Email from Alex:

Hey everyone, my name’s Alex and I’m a conlanger and regular watcher of your podcast (which, I adore, by the way) and I had a question.

I’m making a conlang, which isn’t ready to be seen by other humans eyes, but I’ve hit a bump. The language will be either OSV or OVS but the subject is often excluded due to the community of fictional speakers focus[ing] on what is done and who’s affected more than who preformed the action. My question is, is this a logical sentence structure? I don’t enough about exotic syntax and I want to make sure it’s not illogical.

The language marks verbs for clusivity, number, and evidentiality.

What do you think? Do you have any tips?

Fare fairly.


16 Responses to “Conlangery #53: Topicalization”

  1. Carsten B.

    This is just the thing that I need to desperately sort out for my conlang. Gotta listen to this again when I’m not in a hurry. And read the paper as well.

    • Carsten B.

      Got the Li & Thompson paper from the library now, and ew the digitalization doesn’t care for special characters (e.g. for tone) at all and contains a lot of copying errors, too. I mean, you can work with it, but it’s still better to have the original.

  2. MHenke

    Yet another great episode. Though, I hate when George says, “Let’s move on”. I could listen to William go on forever!

  3. Matthew

    I have question I hope someone can answer. How often do some topic-prominent languages insert topics? Is it something that happens about every nth sentence? when another person starts speaking?

    It would be really cool to see a translated dialogue with topics marked, but I’d be happy just to hear how often people who know topic-prominent languages use topics or hear them used.

    • Wm Annis

      I don’t think I’ve run across numbers like this for topicalization. I would expect the frequency to depend on two main things. First, how topic-prominent is the language? And second, what sort of situation is going on? I’d expect a story or narration to switch topics more often at exciting moments and less often during background setting. Here’s one example in Bade, with an interlinear: A Text in Bade.

    • Mike L (葉明毅)

      On the Wikipedia for Topic-Comment, there are some good examples and explanations in the “Definitions” section. Below, I’ve included an example from the Wiki that shows the speaker switching between referencing a discourse-level topic, then references a different clause-level topic, and references the discourse-level topic again:

      …(4) “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.

      I hope this helps!

  4. MBR

    Okay, guys, stuff just got real. I am going to try this.

    I’m going to play with a note-taking language because I CBA to learn Gregg Shorthand, and because English has too much verbiage. I came upon the realization that a topic-comment language would be awesome for something like this, so I immediately queued up this episode. I still don’t know what the heck anybody’s talking about, but I’m going to do my homework and learn how to do this.

    Hopefully, in a few months, I’ll have a sketch of a tonal, isolating, analytic, topic-comment language that uses an abugida like devanagari, but a lot less complicated (besides, I already copped devanagari for another conlang). Hopefully this will turn out a lot better than my last attempt at a tonal language, which I killed like Bianca kills hers.

    • MBR

      As it turns out, I have no idea what I’m doing in developing this language. I need to learn Chinese first. Oh well, I tried.

  5. Daeiribu

    Japanese is a topic prominent language that uses the passive extensively AND drops topics. Well, Japanese drops EVERYTHING, so there… 😀

    • RandomDutchman

      It’s just one example of the entire thing not being very well-researched. And that drew my attention to a big flaw in the series as a whole: the hosts don’t seem to have much hands-on experience of anything that isn’t Mandarin or English, not even other Germanic languages apparently. And those two languages are often used as if they’re the final, ultimate yardsticks by which to measure any given grammatical topic. I think the podcast would improve a great deal if the hosts were to force themselves to never mention these two languages ever again.
      (I’m sorry if this comment sounds a bit negative, I’m usually a rather cheerful person actually. And maybe I’m overstating my criticism a little bit, but that doesn’t change that I thought this episode was particularly weak.)

  6. /sɑɪ̯f ɑsɑd ɑˈsːətjə/̟

    I’d love to hear an episode on focus, since I find it even more baffling than topic. Like in George’s example, I find it possible to confuse topic and focus on the ground, even though in principle they seem like opposites.

  7. /sɑɪ̯f ɑsɑd ɑˈsːətjə/̟

    “A TV was purchased by my mom and (it) broke”

    Personally, I think “A TV was purchased by my mom and broke” is grammatical, but falls in the category of utterances that sounds stilted because one would rarely choose to phrase it that way, similar to “a man gave me a flier yesterday” in that regard. If I did say “The TV was purchased by my mom and broke” I would probably put some additional emphasis on the “broke” or some filler material before it because otherwise it might be misheard.

    In addition to William’s point that it is very unusual to have an inanimate subject (especially to use the passive in order to promote an inanimate over an animate), I also think there might be some kind of soft prohibition on following a passive with an active in this sort of sentence. “A man walked into the barn and got kicked by a horse” sounds more natural to me than “A man got kicked by a horse and ran into the barn”. Not ungrammatical, just a little stilted. Furthermore, “The TV broke” is that slightly tricksy middle voice construction, which might impose extra constraints on how sentences tend to be arranged.


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