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TYJ Topics and focuses

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This article is in the series Teach Yourself Japanese

7.2. Topics and focuses


The topic and focus are concepts commonly found in human languages. Topics are old information, which you have already talked about in a conversation. Focus is new information, which is often the key to an answer to a question.

Let's think about topics and focus in the English language. Compare the following two conversations:

1.

A: What did you see yesterday?
B: Yesterday I saw Akira.

2.

A: When did you see the movie?
B: I saw the movie yesterday.

The underlined letters indicate topics, which are information backgrounds of the conversation. The italic letters indicate focuses, which are either essential new information or requests for it. You can sometimes say only a focus, so you can say "Akira." at 1-B, and "Yesterday." at 2-B.

The examples below show selecting topics.

3.

A: I saw a movie a week ago, and I saw another one yesterday.
B: What did you see yesterday?

4.

A: I saw a movie and went shopping yesterday.
B: What did you see?

Underlined letters indicate selected topics. At 3-B, the speaker chooses yesterday in 3-A, not a week ago, as information background of the conversation. At 4-B, the speaker chooses saw a movie in 4-A, not went shopping.

Focuses always have a stress, and selected topics often have too. A topic should appear before a focus in plain sentences in English if possible. So it is not right to say "Yesterday I saw the movie." at 2-B.

English has the following ways to display topics and focuses clearly:

-He really likes curry and rice.-
Cleft sentence:It is curry and rice that he really likes.(Curry and rice is the focus)
Pseudo-cleft sentence:What he really likes is curry and rice.(Curry and rice is the focus)
Left dislocation:Curry and rice, he really likes it.(Curry and rice is the topic)
Topicalization:Curry and rice he really likes.(Curry and rice is the topic)

Now let's go on to the Japanese. Japanese has a postposition to mark topics - the postposition は "wa". Please note that it is the exceptional word which has the hiragana は but has the same phonemes as わ.

The subject of a sentence is accompanied by the topic marker は "wa" unless it is a focus. A phrase which is not the subject is accompanied by the topic marker when it is a topic and is more important than the subject. So the subject commonly has the topic marker.

The topic marker is added after other postpositions. You have already learned two postpositions; one is the nominative marker が "ga", and the other is the accusative marker を "o". The topic marker overrides and removes the two postpositions. No other postpositions are overridden.

This is a table of how the topic marker overrides the two postpositions. The postpositions for the dative, locative, and ablative cases are used here just for examples, and they will be explained in later chapters.

-Nominative
marker
Accusative
marker
Dative
marker
Locative
marker
Ablative
marker
Non-topic
"ga"

"o"

"ni"

"de"
から
"kara"
Topic
"wa"

"wa"
には
"niwa"
では
"dewa"
からは
"karawa"

Look at the examples of the topic marker below:

Kana:さくらがさいた。
Romanization:Sa ku ra ga sa i ta .
Structure:(noun, cherry blossoms) (nominative marker) (verb, bloomed)

The subject さくら "sakura" is not accompanied by the topic marker は "wa", so it can be a focus. There are two possibilities: cherry blossoms is new information, or the whole sentence is new information. The preceding question might be "What bloomed?" for the former possibility, and "What happened?" for the latter. It doesn't matter whether such a question is asked. You can introduce new information to the conversation yourself.

Let's add the topic marker after the nominative marker. The nominative marker is overridden like this:

Kana:さくらはさいた。
Romanization:Sa ku ra wa sa i ta .
Structure:(noun, cherry blossoms) (topic marker) (verb, bloomed)

In this case, the subject さくら must have been already talked about. The preceding question might be "Did the cherry blossoms bloom?" or "How are the cherry blossoms?". In the latter case, the verb さいた "saita" is a focus.

Let's look at topics of sentences which have an object. This is also a sentence used in the previous chapter:

Kana:がかがえをいた。
Romanization:Ga ka ga e o ka i ta .
Structure:(noun, artist) (nominative marker) (noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb, drew)

Neither the subject nor the object is a topic so that they can be focuses. The preceding question might be "Who drew a picture?", "Who drew what?", or "What happened?".

Kana:がかはえをいた。
Romanization:Ga ka ga e o ka i ta .
Structure:(noun, artist) (topic marker) (noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb, drew)

The subject is a topic, so the preceding question might be "What did the artist draw?" or "What did the artist do?".

Kana:えはがかがいた。
Romanization:E wa ga ka ga ka i ta .
Structure:(noun, picture) (topic marker) (noun, artist) (nominative marker) (verb, drew)

The topic marker overrides the accusative marker in this sentence. The preceding question might be "Who drew the picture?".

As you see, a topic should appear before a focus in Japanese as well as in English. Since you can freely change the word order of a Japanese sentence, it is easy to place the topic at the beginning of the sentence. If there is more than one piece of background information, the subject, which is possibly a topic, is likely to appear first. If there is more than one piece of new information, the sharpest focus is likely to appear immediately before the verb.

In English, you cannot remove a subject, a verb, or an object from a sentence even when they are topics. In Japanese, only a predicator (either a verb, a copula, or an adjective) is necessary to form a grammatically correct sentence. You don't have to say a subject or an object when they are clear from context. As a reply to the question "What did the artist do?", you can just say this:

Kana:えをがいた。
Romanization:E o ka i ta .
Structure:(noun, picture) (accusative marker) (verb, drew)

The hidden subject is the artist, or がか "gaka".

If you don't want to say a whole sentence, you can say only the focus word as well as in English. To answer the question "What did the artist draw?", you can say え。 "E." or えを。 "E o.", but they are not complete sentences.

← Previous page (Cases and postpositions) | Next page (Verbs) →
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Takasugi
My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

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