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Is Hong Kong Sign Language a topic-prominent language?

  • Felix Sze EMAIL logo
From the journal Linguistics


This paper addresses two questions. First, how can we know if a language is topic-prominent (Tp) in the spirit of Li and Thompson (1976, 1981)? Second, is Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL) topic-prominent? This paper argues that some of the subsequent studies that adopt Li and Thompson’s proposal may have over-interpreted the latter’s initial claims by turning their observed characteristics of topic-prominent languages into “defining criteria” for topic-prominence. With linguistic evidence from Chinese, Lahu, and Lisu, this paper argues that topic-prominence first conceptualized by Li and Thompson is a broad notion that covers different linguistic phenomena that make topics prominent in Tp languages. Suggestions on how to interpret Li and Thompson’s list of topic-prominence characteristics are given. É. Kiss’s theory of discourse configurationality (1995, 1997, 2001) is also used to investigate if HKSL is topic-prominent. It is argued that only “scene-setting” topics, but not “aboutness” topics, are marked non-manually in HKSL. HKSL cannot be considered topic-prominent on a par with Chinese and Lisu, because topicalization in HKSL is infrequent and the non-manual topic markers are not widespread. HKSL is not topic-prominent according to É. Kiss’s theory either because thetic and categorical judgments are not realized in different syntactic structures.


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Appendix A: Procedures of identifying aboutness topics, scene-setting topics and fronted non-topic constituents in the Hong Kong Sign Language data.

This study adopts Reinhart’s (1981) procedure of identifying aboutness topics with some minor modifications. Reinhart’s procedure is based on the crosslinguistic observation that subjects are the default sentence topics and topics represent familiar or identifiable information to the discourse participants. The procedure is shown below:

  1. First, select an NP whose referent is already in the context set (i.e., an NP mentioned in the preceding discourse) unless:

    1. the sentence is linked to the previous sentence by a semantic connector. [33]

    2. the sentence starts a new segment of the context set (i.e., the sentence begins with an entirely new discourse topic irrelevant to the previous context set).

In both (a) and (b), the topic will be any definite NP which represents an entity familiar or identifiable to the addressee. This NP does not need to be referentially linked to the preceding discourse.

(II) If (I) is met, the subject representing old information will be the aboutness topic. However, if the subject represents new information but a non-subject NP represents old information, then the non-subject NP will be selected as the aboutness topic.

The following steps show how aboutness topics, scene-setting topics and fronted non-topical objects are identified in the HKSL data of this study:

  1. In the first sentence of a new discourse segment, if there is a clause-external definite NP representing what that and the next sentence are about, it will be marked as an aboutness topic. If there is no clause-external topic and if the subject is definite, then the subject will be marked as the topic. If the sentence introduces a new referent into the discourse without any definite NP, the sentence is regarded as presentational and there is no aboutness topic. Sentence-initial temporal phrases, locative adverbials and subordinate clauses are all coded as potential scene-setting topics, unless these constituents also represent what the sentence is about. In such a case, these constituents are coded as aboutness topics.

  2. For other non-discourse-initial sentences, the topic will be a definite NP which is referentially linked to the preceding sentences. If there are two definite NPs referentially linked to the preceding sentences, then the one occupying the subject position will be chosen as the topic. [34] Non-subject definite NPs will only be selected as the topic if the subject does not represent familiar or identifiable information.

  3. Like other sign languages, HKSL allows null arguments if the referents are recoverable from contextual clues or verb agreement markings. Taking this into consideration, the topic NPs stated in step 2 can be either null or non-null.

  4. Fronted constituents are coded in the data.

  5. Following Lambrecht (1994) I assume that identificational, presentational and event-reporting sentences do not contain an aboutness topic. Identificational sentences serve to identify a referent as the missing argument. For example, “The children went to school” is an identificational sentence if it is the answer to the question “Who went to school?” (Lambrecht 1994:121). Event reporting sentences express a proposition which is linked neither to an already established topic nor to a presupposed open proposition. “The children went to school” is an event-reporting sentence if it is an answer to the question, “What happened” (Lambrecht 1994:126). Presentational sentences are those intended to introduce not-yet activated referents into a discourse (Lambrecht 1994:143). For example, the sentence “Once upon a time there was a handsome prince” aims at introducing the indefinite referent “prince” and it does not have an aboutness topic.

  6. In HKSL, short answers to wh-questions usually do not contain a topic expression because they typically contain just the focused information elicited by the corresponding information-seeking questions.

  7. Incomplete utterances due to hesitation, self-correction or interruption from the conversation partner are all excluded from the analysis.

Appendix B: Photo illustrations of Example (42) – (57)

Example (42):

‘My elder sister, family (comes) first.’

Example (43):

‘The Hong Kong Society for the Deaf and the Hong Kong Association of the Deaf, they have a lot of activities.’

Example (44):

Any Deaf person whose car has a problem would give him (my Japanese Deaf friend) a phone call.

Example (45):

‘Ng told me that she had made an appointment with Gladys to discuss something tomorrow.’

Example (46):

‘The way I speak is unclear and I am upset by my unclear articulation.’

Example (47):

‘Kwan always attained the same figures (for the game).’

Example (48):

‘After the teacher finishes speaking, (I could) interrupt.’

Example (49):

‘At the back, two persons were behind another person.’

Example (50):

‘Danny and I were unacquainted in the past.’

Example (51):

‘I remember that I was a little child.’

Example (52):

‘I want to participate in the basketball team.’

Example (53):

‘Books that were in poor condition, (I) would not sell them and would just throw them away.’

Example (54):

‘Wearing hearing aids, I have never thought about it.’

Example (55):

‘I forget whether (the methadone used by those drug addicts) is yellow or green.’

Example (56):

‘A female/girl has been knocked down by a car.’

Example (57):

‘A female/girl got on the bus.’

Published Online: 2015-7-7
Published in Print: 2015-7-1

©2015 by De Gruyter Mouton

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