I just discovered topic-prominence and am curious how it works in Chinese in complex cases. But mainly for this question, wondering what Wikipedia means by:

They do not have articles, which are another way of indicating old vs. new information.

Can a topic-prominent language have articles or determiners? Are there any examples of this? Why can they get by without articles/determiners like "the" or "a" in English?

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    They certainly can, yes; the list in the article there are features that are common in topic-prominent languages, not universal (Japanese marks subjects and objects very clearly, for instance, in addition to topics). Whether any languages generally classified as topic-prominent actually does have articles is another matter; Chinese, Japanese and Korean definitely don’t, but I don’t know any other traditional topic-prominent languages. Note that ‘determiner’ is not the same as articles. Determiners like ‘this/that/my/which’ and so on definitely exist in topic-prominent languages. Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 14:05
  • (Note that I’m not including Brazilian Portuguese in this, as listed on the Wikipedia page. While topicalisation is certainly possible and common in Portuguese, I don’t think describing the language itself as topic-prominent is useful. If it is, then all Germanic languages, especially Danish and Norwegian, are certainly topic-prominent as well, with their high-frequent use of topicalisation.) Commented Oct 30, 2022 at 14:07

3 Answers 3


IMO this is a misleading statement in the Wiki article. The section begins by saying (emphasis added)

Many topic-prominent languages share several syntactic features that have arisen because the languages have sentences that are structured around topics, rather than subjects and objects

followed by a list. The list items are qualified with hedges like "They tend...; They rarely...; they often; ... is not reliably marked", and then for this one, they make an unqualified statement "They do not have". This is false (Lakota, one of their examples, has a definite article kiŋ), and also arbitrarily specific ("article" refers to an independent syntactic word, thus excluding functionally identical affixes). They list Vietnamese as a topic-prominent languages, but the Wiki on Vietnamese tells you about the article in Vietnamese. They list Brazilian Portuguese as a topic-prominent language, and you can read about the syntax of definite articles on that same page. You could add a statistical hedge to this claim, which would make the claim harder to refute. I don't know of any evidence that the statement is even true as a statement of significant statistical trend. The underlying problem is the idea that "topic prominent language is a definite type of language".


This may be a case where a Eurocentric view is good enough.

Roughly half the European languages have articles, and half don’t, and it varies within families and even dialect continua, and between modern languages and their direct ancestors. Some of those direct ancestors are relatively well documented, like Latin, Old Church Slavonic and Homeric Greek.

But without even looking at them, the fact that definite articles are so unstable suggests that there are no strict rules about which types of languages have or don’t have definite articles.

More evidence of instability:

Within the same family, like Germanic and Romance, there are languages where articles come before the noun and languages where they come after.

There are languages where articles are combined with determiners like possessive pronouns, or articles are used with proper names, or abstract concepts, and others like English where the use of articles does not go as far.

Much of this even varies within dialects of the same language.


Classical Greek is "a language that organizes its syntax to emphasize the topic–comment structure of the sentence", so qualifies as a topic-prominent language by that definition, but it has a definite article. Presumably since topics are generally definite a language that marks topics has less need to mark definiteness, but this isn't an absolute universal.

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