[tlhIngan Hol] Topic

Will Martin willmartin2 at mac.com
Mon Mar 4 05:27:14 PST 2019

In my American Sign Language class, we just covered “topicalization”. In ASL, it is common to express as the first sign of a sentence the topic, marking it as such with NMS (Non-Manual Sign) of raised eyebrows. Since, like Klingon and unlike English, there aren’t a lot of helper words piled around the nouns and verbs of the sentence to explain the grammatical function of those words, it becomes important to make the context of a sentence clear, first thing.

This is very much like the Klingon suffix {-‘e’}, as described in TKD (The Klingon Dictionary), if it were actually used as described, though, as SuStel has pointed out, almost all (if not all) of the canon examples don’t use it as the grammatical explanation Okrand gives us. As described, a noun could appear first in a Klingon sentence, marked by the Type 5 suffix {-‘e’}, stating the topic of the sentence, with no other grammatical link to the sentence. It’s not the subject. It’s not the object. It’s the topic. This would be consistent with other Type 5 suffixes that mark the location of the action of the verb (not its subject or object) or the purpose of the action of the verb (not its subject or object), etc.

As a theoretical example of this use, an alternative version of the sentence {SeqramvaD tlhIngan Hol ghojmoH HoD Qanqor} could have been {tlhIngan Hol’e’ Seqram ghojmoH Qanqor}. “On the topic of the Klingon language, Captain Krankor teaches Seqram.” If you just read the description of the grammar for {-‘e’}, that’s what you’d expect, because the general case is that nouns with Type 5 suffix appear before the clause to which it applies and as the suffix that makes a noun the topic of the clause, such a marked noun shouldn’t act as object or subject of any clause.

But when you look at canon, Okrand puts {-‘e’} on nouns that are subjects and objects and are placed in the word order accordingly. {nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa’’e’?} That’s not the topic. That’s the subject. {De’’e’ vItlhapnISpu’.} While the placement COULD be explained as topic, the verb prefix {vI-} makes it obvious that this is the object of the verb. His translation, “I needed to get the INFORMATION,” makes it clear that this is emphatic, not topic.

In ASL, I can also see a mixing of these concepts of topicalization and emphasis, though they seem a little more separated by the common use of what is called the diamond structure. In ASL, you might answer a question made to a group, “Who is going to the store?” with "[raised eyebrows] Me [eyebrows normal] store [point to a place to represent the store] go [directional sign toward that space] me.”

My presumption is that the topic is repeated at the end as emphasis. Since it is optional, just signing it at the beginning probably acts more as simple topic without emphasis, but the repetition indicates emphasis.

Repetition is an important element of ASL, as in the way it marks the difference between the same sign indicating a noun or a verb. The verb sign “fly” is repeated to indicate “airplane”. The verb “sit” is repeated to indicate “chair”. Typically, there’s a single repeat, so that “fly fly” is “airplane” and “sit sit” is “chair”.

In Klingon, were we to see a noun at the beginning of a sentence that has {-‘e’} on it and has no other grammatical explanation for its placement, I suggest that would indicate topic, while adding {-‘e’} to a noun that is placed as subject or object of a clause is acting as emphasis instead of topic.

As an example, when a relative clause has both subject and object, we optionally have the use of {-‘e’} to mark the head noun:

puq qIppu’bogh yaS vIngu’.

This could mean either “I identified the officer who hit the child,” or “I identified the child who was hit by the officer.” If I want to make sure you understand, I could say, {puq qIppu’bogh yaS’e’ vIngu’.}

Note that Okrand often does not use this tool in canon, leaving context to suggest whether the subject or object of the relative clause is the head noun. To me, that suggests that this use is more of an emphatic than topic marker. By emphasizing one of the nouns, it raises ones attention to it so that you understand it is the more important of the two nouns because it functions both within the relative clause and within the main clause. If it were functioning as topicalizer, then I suggest it would be more obligatory and not as optional, since emphasis is akin to tone of voice, and it could well be that when Okrand doesn’t mark the head noun, he is transcribing verbal speech where the head noun was emphasized with tone of voice instead of the suffix {-‘e’}. In the movies, it is clear that Klingons do change their tone of voice for emphasis. Apparently {-‘e’} is one of at least two methods of emphasizing a noun.

Also, there is no grammatical explanation for how a noun could have a Type 5 suffix and yet its position in the sentence is not dictated by the rule that nouns with Type 5 suffix must appear before the object of the verb to which it applies. Obviously, there’s something going on here that Okrand has not described well.

For myself, I would not be surprised if there were two different {-‘e’} suffixes. One is the one Okrand describes in the grammar section of TKD and the other is the one he uses in perhaps all of his canon examples. This second one is not a true Type 5 suffix because the addition of this suffix has no effect on word placement.

There are really only two reasons for calling this a Type 5 suffix:

1. You can’t use it with other Type 5 suffixes.

2. It is always the last suffix on the noun.

So, the real question is which of the following is true:

1. There are two different noun suffixes, one of which is a true Type 5 suffix, affecting the word placement of the noun in the sentence, marking the topic of the sentence, and the other which is the noun equivalent of a verbal “rover” suffix (not that the suffix can rove among noun suffixes, but that the noun to which the suffix is applied can rove to whatever position in the sentence is appropriate, different than any other Type 5 suffix), indicating emphasis and not topic.

2. The grammatical description of {-‘e’} is fundamentally flawed because it fails to explicitly describe that {-‘e’} never affects word placement in the sentence as all other Type 5 noun suffixes do, and {-‘e’} acts ONLY as emphatic and NEVER as topic. Okrand is apparently confused about the grammatical difference between topic and emphatic, or he oddly decided that while he understands the difference, his target audience doesn’t understand the difference, and perhaps we would understand the word “topic” while we would be confused by the term “emphatic”.

In any case, this is without question the least well described suffix in TKD.

charghwI’ vaghnerya’ngan

rInpa’ bomnIS be’’a’ pI’.

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