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I have read that "most East-Asian languages" are topic-prominent languages, which means putting the topic (object) first before the subject, and the verb last, but they never say explicitly that this is OSV structure. However, the Wikipedia word order page says OSV languages are by far the rarest. I have read that in Chinese topic-first-ness is much more common for native speakers, and is the preferred way of speaking. So who/what is incorrect here? Wikipedia is saying OSV is the rarest, yet other pages are saying topic-firstness (in Chinese and others) is the most common form, and I am reading this as OSV. So I am confused.

  • How is topic-prominence different than OSV word order?
  • If they are the same, then is Wikipedia wrong? How popular then is OSV or topic-prominence?
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    You’ve based this question on a false premise: topic isn’t the same as object, so topic-prominence doesn’t mean putting the object first. The topic can be the object, but it can also be the subject or any other constituent, including the subject (at least in theory – in practice, some are very rarely topicalised, like main verbs). Oct 30, 2022 at 15:39
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I don't think verb topicalization is that rare. It's fairly common in classical Greek, for example.
    – TKR
    Oct 30, 2022 at 17:31

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A topic-prominent language is one that structures sentences so at to make most-obvious what the discourse topic is, and what comment is made about that topic. This can be done in various ways, especially by marking the topic with some topic-indicating morpheme – for example, -wa in Japanese marks the topic. An alternative, in this typology, is subject-prominence, where the syntax "focuses" on signalling the subject of the sentence. Anything can be a topic, or a subject. Depending on your framework, a sentence might have both a subject and a topic in a language.

"OSV" simply means that the usual, "unmarked" word order in a sentence is O, S, V, and discourse topicality is orthogonal (the object might be the topic, or the the subject, or the verb). However, word order could be a device for signalling topicality, so a language with at least possible OSV order could use that order as a device for marking topic (topic-marking inflection isn't the sole defining means of making a topic prominent).

Statistically-speaking, more languages are subject-prominent than are topic-prominent, and OSV is a rarer order of the six possible orders (SVO, SOV and VSO are the most common orders, VSO is in third place in that set).

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To put it simply, "topic" and "object" are not the same. The topic can have any syntactic role in the sentence (subject, object, main verb, etc): it's whichever element is most relevant to the discourse.

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