Scholarly article on topic 'Oriental language as an ideal object of linguistics'

Oriental language as an ideal object of linguistics Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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{linguistics / "Topic-Comment structures" / sentence / psychology / "language levels" / "parts of speech" / "units of the lexical level" / "ideal object of linguistics" / "topic prominent languages" / "inflected languages" / "isolated languages" / "language typology"}

Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Vladimir Kurdyumov

Abstract Most of the categories and concepts of general linguistics were proposed during the analysis of the surface features of the typical inflected languages, so when applied to Oriental languages (isolative, agglutinative) they caused contradictions and disputes lasted for years. Explorations in non-inflected languages ontology, in the language essence: in the syntax, in the psycholinguistic processes, in the morphology etc. may help not only to enrich the general theory of linguistics, but even revise basic rules and statements which seem to be undeniable.For example, Chinese syntax is based on the Topic-Comment structures, and the advanced understanding of this point may be viewed as conceptual basis of the whole language theory; Chinese morphology is “positional”: lexical units may fill specific Positions, may “fluctuate” in the Range and, finally, “travel” along the Route, getting stylistically colored meanings. So called “word” is not the same as European one, it is just the unit which presents lexical level.

Academic research paper on topic "Oriental language as an ideal object of linguistics"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 70 (2013) 1493 - 1500

Akdeniz Language Studies Conference 2012

Oriental language as an ideal object of linguistics

Vladimir Kurdyumov*

Moscow City Teacher' Training University Institute of Foreign Languages, Malyi Kazionnyi per., d.5B, Moscow, Russia


Most of the categories and concepts of general linguistics were proposed during the analysis of the surface features of the typical inflected languages, so when applied to Oriental languages (isolative, agglutinative) they caused contradictions and disputes lasted for years. Explorations in non-inflected languages ontology, in the language essence: in the syntax, in the psycholinguistic processes, in the morphology etc. may help not only to enrich the general theory of linguistics, but even revise basic rules and statements which seem to be undeniable. For example, Chinese syntax is based on the Topic-Comment structures, and the advanced understanding of this point may be viewed as conceptual basis of the whole language theory; Chinese morphology is "positional": lexical units may fill specific Positions, may "fluctuate" in the Range and, finally, "travel" along the Route, getting stylistically colored meanings. So called "word" is not the same as European one, it is just the unit which presents lexical level.

© 2012 The Authors.Published by Els evier Lto. Selection and peer-review under responsibility of ALSC 2012

Keywords: linguistics, Topic-Comment structures, sentence, psychology, language levels, parts of speech, units of the lexical level , ideal object of linguistics, topic prominent languages, inflected languages, isolated languages, language typology

For an expert in Chinese language lots of problems in present time theoretical linguistics seem to be much more obvious: applying achievements, terms, concepts of traditional linguistics would not lead to the same result as in inflective languages.

The main topics of this article are:

How to "connect" an Oriental (Eastern, e.g. Chinese language) and general linguistics? How to expand and enrich / revise general theory taking into account the nature and typology of Chinese?

Within the scope of practical linguistics, the most attention is paid to the usage: of lexical units, function words etc.; ontological problems mostly are avoided. The practice grammar in general use

* Corresponding author. Tel/ fax: +7 495 607 51 30. E-mail address:,

1877-0428 © 2012 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and peer-review under responsibility of ALSC 2012 doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.01.217

"European" terminology, such as: parts of speech, sentence composition, but pay little attention to its essence. So in the case of practical grammar, Chinese language is usually being described in the terms of "usual" grammar: at least in Russia.

As for sinology in China, during last decades linguists prefer to follow generative grammar, which does not require any subject, predicate, the parts of the sentence at all.

What is or what are the reasons for declining "European" categories?

1. Chinese Syntax: Topic and Comment

One of the distinctive features of Chinese is the existence of Topic-Comment (T-C) sentences, opposed to Subject-Predicate (S-P) sentences /clauses that are familiar to us from any European language. Chinese at all may be described as topic-prominent language, which means that Topic-Comment structures are prevalent: a common native Chinese (Vietnamese, etc.) speaker speaking in an usual situation would prefer to use the structure of Topic-Comment rather than subject-predicate.

Subject-Predicate structures also exist in Chinese and usually the practice grammar textbooks note that word order in Chinese is: SVO (Subject - Predicate - Object).

For example:

I eat chicken.

Wo chl jlrou

But what is the difference between "European" subject and Chinese one in this case? There is no agreement of subject and predicate: in Chinese singular /dual / plural forms of the noun and verbs, no categories of person or gender are impermissible.

For example in Russian the same meaning will be expressed by a clause:

Я ем курицу.

Ya yem kuritsu.

I eat (singular, first person) chicken (accusative or object case).

So the only thing that brings together Chinese and English versions: the fact that the grammatical subject coincides with the semantic subject by its role, the grammatical object coincides with semantic object, and the verb is placed between them. But in English or Russian, the verb "rules" all the relations within the clause, in Chinese clause is indifferent to verb forms.

And there are plenty Chinese clauses in which the SVO word order is not met: I eat chicken (Chicken, I eat )

Л, wo chl

Or even

XlnfeT The chicken is eaten. (chicken, eat+ perfect )

Л, chl le

And, the following clauses are preferable in the most situations in Chinese:

Йф^И ШШ^У ° This book, I have read

Zhe ben shu wo kan wanle.

Й а ^И-Ш » tfttfk Йо This TV set, the price is not expensive.

Zhe tai dianshi, jiage bu tai gui.


Shanghai de xiatian, wo ting shuo mei tian xia yu, ye hen chaoshi

Shanghai in the summer, I heard that it rains every day, and very wet.

Riyu, wo zenme shuo ye shuo de bu hao

Japanese, anyway I say, it is not good

According to English translation above, the structures are also possible in English (and any other languages) but are considered to be incorrect, unacceptable in literary speech (but are widely spread in spontaneous speech, for Russian I think they dominate in it).

As far as I know Turkish clauses may be often built according T-C strategy:


sen You

sev like

sin -2sg


biz We

sev like

-sin -2sg

You like us. -i sen

-Acc. You (pl)

Us, you like.

(A pattern borrowed from Jaklin Kornfilt "Turkish Grammar" (1997); London: Routledge, P. 385), and such patterns often can be met, for example, in Bulgarian (as for both languages some can speak about a "Balkanian speech type").

2. The Essence of the T-C Structures: Topic, Theme and Subject

In European linguistics, the topic of a sentence is often defined as what is being talked about, and the comment is what is being said about the topic. In such case, one can not distinguish between Topic and Theme / Comment and Rheme (Focus).

According classical view of Li and Thompson (1976), primarily understanding of T-C is syntactic one and as for the Theme - Rheme (Focus) understanding is "over- syntactic", communicative.

For sentence: I have not read this book, the subject is the theme is this book, but the sentence does not contain any topic.

If one would say This book, I have not read, topic This book equals the Theme, thus "I" become the grammatical subject for the Comment, not for the whole sentence, and, maybe such word order is much more natural for oral communication than "subject--promm^t": from psycholinguistic point of view This book, I have not read is "deep" and I have not read this book — may be considered a transform. In the topic-prominent form, This book sure is not a grammatical object.

So, when we analyze Chinese sentence:

Zhe ben shu wo hai mei kan ne

Zhe ben shu is topic, wo hai mei kan ne is comment, and in grammar the two are

main members (parts) of the sentence in contrast with grammatical subject and predicate.

So the syntax definition for T-C is the following:

Topic and Comment are syntactic categories, the main parts (members) of the sentence, they are in the predicative relation ("characterized - characterizing"; the relation is being approved by the speech act), but they do not require formal agreement and "behave freely" relative to each other (opposed to grammatical subject and predicate which are under agreement).

The differences from subject and predicate are as follows (at least):

a) The topic always is defined, "known", while the subject may be indefinite, and even "empty" ("dummy subject"); Li and Thompson pointed out that just because that "thematic" topic is placed in the beginning of a sentence, however, in our opinion, the construction with the topic at the end (the inversion of topic), in the center of sentence ("insular Topic") are possible:

As for John, he didn't read it, that book of yours. (Two topics: in the beginning and in the end);

b) There are no any formal dependency between topic and comment, that is, it (topic) need not be an argument of a predicative constituent;

c) In contrast to the subject, the verb in the commentary does not determine the role (semantic case) of the topic, so topics may be semantic subjects (actors), objects (recipients), places, and — phrases or even clauses;

According to G.P. Melnikov (1990), the syntactic form of T-C is "canonically dissected", i.e. real connection of topic and comment occurs only in the mind of the perceiver communicant (in the case of the S-P — on the contrary — syntax form is "joint" in order to be divided in mind).

Understanding of T-C can be extended to the text, psycholinguistics and typology.

As for text level, as it was mentioned by Li and Thomson and further developed by A. Yefremov (1987), a topic controls not only the sentence but the whole text fragment. It is consistent with theories of text linguistics, about main "subject" and main "predicate" (the Idea, hyper-proposition) of text or its part; in the case with the topic, main "subject" is expressed on surface as a topic of a sentence.

g^itisw, ^yf^, ^m^fM, ............

Zhege dongwuyuan bu da, dongwu bu duo, huanjing ye bu hao, 15 yuan de menpiao tai guile............

The zoo is small, just few animals, the environment is not good, a $ 15 ticket is too expensive............

Thus, the definition-II: Topic is the theme of a text (supra-phrasal) level's formation localized in the syntactic form in one of the sentences. Its Comment may be implemented as in this sentence, and may be implemented throughout the whole unity (topic is characterized by all of the text which it controls).

Understanding III — psycholinguistic, again based on the concept of Li and Thompson (1976), in a generalized form presented in the book by T.V. Akhutina (early 1990s).

Usually in psycholinguistics (especially in Soviet) operations are considered to be main units, however, the problem of the structural approach is not excluded. Within such an approach is necessary to answer the question "What is (what structures are) at a depth (in mind), and how they differ from the structures that are "on the surface"?.

Some psycholinguists (A.A. Leontyev (1997), T.V. Ahutina(1989), not giving fundamental importance to the fact, indicate that "in depth" — (in the mind, while generation) the T-Cs precede the S-P constructions: a speaking person begins with a simple T-C structure in order to expand it to a text or transform it to S-P. And the aim of the recipient is to achieve / extract an original T-C from a text or transforming it back the S-P. Thus, the definition-III: T-C is the most natural and primary deep (mental, psycholinguistic) structure, organized similar to the surface T-C (understanding I).

Now it is possible to make distinction between T-C and Theme-Rheme: Theme is just a result of the topic search, where it is not expressed on the surface, it is a "topic of depth". If communicants feel that a S-P does not reflect the real (binary) content, the main characterization, they start searching for Theme

and Rheme, which in ideal, should coincide with the topic and comment of generation (characterized -characterizing).

So as for T-C and Theme-Rheme 1) they are not equal, 2) T-C is primarily and T-R is secondary.

Understanding IV: Topic-Comment as a language norm, the standard of a typical generation. This refers to the predominant type of syntax strategy, which usual native speaker would select during the usual conversation in a normal situation for generating "unmarked" (ordinary) utterances. As pointed out by Li and Thompson (1976), there may be four main types of strategy and hence, there are four main types of languages, which indicate a possible move from one type to another in diachrony.

Thus, the definition-IV: The T -Cs is a standard for language typology and the criteria on which the type of language (in synchrony; and also its historic background (diachrony) and its future - as forecast) may be determined

As is evident, all of the above definitions are based on the classical syntactic understanding and, in general, rely on it.

A few generalizations are important:

Opposing the T-C and the S-P structures, Li and Thompson themselves acknowledge that the Subject and Predicate are just a case of topic grammaticalization (movement of topic to be included within the agreement with the predicate), and in addition, there would be many intermediate forms between classical T-C and S-P; therefore, T-C is the universal standard: all syntactic structures are derivable from it.

T-Cs function at any level of depth, during any "movement to / from the surface" (i.e., the generation and perception): they are also a universal standard for pre-syntactic constructions.

So called topic's "themeness" is nothing more than the problem of diverging T-C and S-P while generation - in the case when a language norm requires the S-Ps on the surface; the notion of theme is secondary in relation to topic.

The final definition: Topic and Comment are the universal language categories, operating at all levels and stages of language in the synchrony and diachrony, committing circuit in the process of generation and perception, constantly passing into a similar or derivative structures. Topic and Comment are linked by the predicative relation, which is the basic for language; as a structure they may be, apparently, congenital (at least, no one has proved the other.)

Language is a circuit of T & K-structures in synchrony and diachrony.

3. Lexicology and Morphology In Chinese

As for lexical level: why the term of «word» in relation to the Chinese should be taken in quotes? Again, this is one of those common problems, the correct key to the solution of which can be given exploring the nature of Chinese language.

This language has the lexical level, but there is no well-defined "words" such as the European. There are units of the lexical level but usually they are unstable: monosyllabic — fluctuating between word and morpheme, polysyllabic — between words and phrases. Therefore, we have to characterize them correctly as "lexical level's units", but since linguistics has produced inaccurate notion of the "word", which is not quite tedious, sometimes we have to use it for Chinese, meaning a weak, fluctuating unit of the level.

Scheme: Typological aspect of T-C structures (Li-Thompson (1976)

Typology of the Chinese language determines "weakness" of lexical level as opposed to the "strong" levels of syllabo-morpheme and phrase / syntagm.

Chinese "word" is formed according the rules of the micro syntax, i.e. such rules of the organization of its structure, which are similar to the same of the macro syntax in phrase or clause.

As for parts of speech, it's actually a quite "painfiil" problem because there are no dictionary-fixed parts of speech in Chinese: so the usual understanding may be replaced by more flexible concept of positional morphology. Its essence is that in the Chinese language (and probably in many others) part-of-speech meaning of lexical units (~ words) is determined by their positions in the sentence.

In the classical Chinese literary language wenyan belonging to the part of speech was in fact extremely flexible (words were not restrictively categorized into parts of speech: nouns used as verbs, adjectives used as nouns, and so on), as for the present time spoken language there are certain limitations:

Láo wú láo yíjí rén zhl láo, you wú you yíjí rén zhT you

We must take care not only about our elderly, but also of others, we must educate not only our children but also others.

láo usually known in present time as "old", means here "take care (about our elderly)" as a verb and as "elderly people" — as nouns; you: "take care about", "educate (children)" — as a verb and "children, child" —as nouns.

Because by present time, the part-of-speech belongingness is becoming more or less fixed, then we should talk about morphological positions, and, rather, about the unity of the three concepts: the position, the route, and the range.

The position is a concrete part-of-speech meaning of a unit within a definite syntax environment (a definite noun, verb etc). The range is the most typical morphological characteristics of the Chinese "word" since it normally "fluctuates between" several (mostly, two-four) positions: for example Ü dang lays in the range of the verb<->copula<->conjunction; Щ dáo is in the range of the verb<->preposition, and almost affix; i3 ñj ningké, т1 "в ningken are in the range of the full verb<->modal verb<->causative verb<->conjunction. So the route is an opportunity to fill up consequently a series (up to infinity) of related positions (stylistically colored, as a language game when out of the norm): DJ BE! Lets DJ together! (DJ ->• to DJ)

¿ЙПНЁ" 'T Let's drink coffee (coffee —> to coffee)

At the same time questions like «Tell me exactly to what part of speech (out of context, in the dictionary) does this or that unit belong?» in fact, are meaningless.

Exactly the same situation is in English, but according to the European tradition parts of speech should be fixed in the dictionary as entry points, and interpreted by linguists as so called conversional homonyms, i.e., as different words matched by the original form:

He lay in bed all morning.

John wants to bed Kate.

Make your bedroom irresistibly cozy and inviting with soft bed linen.

The next station is Esperanza

The host stationed me at the front door to greet visitors

The station platform is always crowded at four o'clock.

Thus, explorations in Chinese language in the synchrony and diachrony indicate that:

1) The categories of European linguistics formed during in the analysis of surface properties of inflected languages can not be applied to Chinese, otherwise systemic contradictions inevitably may occur;

2) Therefore, the categories and concepts of European linguistics may be considered incomplete, partial, and non-universal;

3) To build a new linguistics, it is possible and necessary not only to consider the material of languages such as Chinese (topic-prominent, isolative), but also put them in the center of the conceptual description, just as Euclidean geometry has revised and expanded for the benefit of the Lobachevsky or Riemann geometries;

4) The Chinese language may be viewed as an ideal object of linguistics.

So if take for explorations a language of other type, for example agglutinative (Turkish, Kazakh etc.), consider its features as systemic, refuse the mechanical transfer of European categories, the new linguistics based on such type may be formed as different from the "traditional".


Akhutina T. (1989) Ахугина T.B. Порождение речи. Нейролингвистический анализ синтаксиса (Generation of speech. Neuro-linguistic analysis of syntax). Moscow: Moscow State University Publishing.

Leontyev A. (1997) Леонтьев А.А. Основы психолингвистики. (Basics of psycholinguistics) Moscow: Smysl.

Li, Ch., Thompson, S. (1976) Subject and topic: A new typology of language. Subject and Topic, ed. by Charles Li. New York: Academic Press.

Yefremov, A. (1987) Ефремов A.M. Связное китайского текста в сравнительно-типологическом аспекте. Дисс. ...канд. филолог, наук. (Coherence of Chinese text in the comparative typological perspective. PhD Diss.). Moscow.