The “Hidden” Turkish Subject: Turkish as a Topic-Prominent Language
Updated: Feb 17
In a Turkish sentence, a pronoun in the subject position can be omitted because the finite verb is always in agreement with the subject. In other words, the subject that does not appear explicitly and, as such, remains implicit, can still be inferred from the verb’s person suffix. Therefore, while an English clause requires both subject and predicate to make sense, a Turkish clause needs only a predicate.
The Turkish subject’s person is thus “hidden” in the predicate, which is why Turkish can have single word-sentences. What's more, Turkish can have sentences without any person marked, called “impersonal” sentences:
I left. It was hot.
sentence with a “hidden” subject sentence with no subject (impersonal sentence)
Turkish Subject vs. English Subject
As in English, the Turkish subject is a core element in a sentence, which is dependent on the verb (the head) of the sentence and connected to the object only through the verb.
The regular Turkish (canonical) sentence consists of the same core elements but follows a different word order:
Simple Sentence = Subject + Object + Verb (SOV)
🚩 The Turkish subject is, however, different from the English subject in two important aspects:
1. Turkish subject can be nominative (like in English) or genitive.
2. Unlike English subjects, Turkish pronominal subjects are omitted, or dropped, unless they are contrasted or emphasized in some other way, in line with the pro-drop principle of the Turkish language.
Turkish Nominative and Genitive Subjects
Like in English, Turkish subjects are nominative (non-case-marked) in simple nominal and verbal sentences and main clauses of complex sentences.
For example (with the subjects shown underlined):
Savaş sona erdi. Hava güzel.
The war is over. The weather is fine.
simple verbal sentence simple nominal sentence with the adjectival predicate
Sibel, iki hafta çalışıp, bu işi birikmiş. Yağmur yağmasaydı, çocuklar dışarı çıkacaklardı.
Having worked for two weeks, Sibel left this job. If it weren’t raining, the kids would have gone outside.
However, Turkish subjects can also be genitive-case-marked in certain constructions, including existential sentences denoting possession, nominal sentences, and various nominal constructions denoting necessity or possibility:
Hepimizin bir sırrı vardır. Çevirinin, özgün metnin zayıf bir kopyası olması gerekmemektedir.
We all have a secret. Translation need not be a poor substitute for the original.
existential sentence nominal sentence denoting negative necessity
As the examples above show, in complex sentences with finite clauses, the subjects of the main and dependent clauses are typically nominative:
[Bu, eğer devletin gücü içinde olursa], [o zaman bir güvencedir silah].
If this is within the power of the state, then weapons mean security.
Subjects in Embedded Clauses
In complex sentences with embedded verbal clauses, which are nonfinite clauses, the subject forms a genitive-possessive construction with the nominalized form of the verb of the embedded clause. The reason for nominalization is that, in Turkish sentences, only the final verb is allowed to have a finite form so that to conform to the Turkish canonical subject-object-verb word order.
The subject and the nominalized verbal specifically form a definite compound noun, with the subject being the modifier and the verbal being the head of the compound.
Sentential Objects and Complements: Embedded Wh-and That-Clauses
In a complex sentence with an object wh-clause or a complement that-clause, the subject of the subordinate clause is also in the genitive case. As it aligns with the SOV word order of the Turkish language, the entire subordinate clause is turned into an object (sentential object) or a complement (sentential complement):
Ali, [[Aylin’in] kimle çalıştığını] bilmiyordu. Ali, [[Aylin’in] çalıştığını] bilmiyordu.
Ali didn't know with whom Aylin was working. Ali didn't know that Aylin worked.
embedded object wh-clause ⇒ sentential object embedded complement that-clause ⇒ sentential complement
Araştırmalar, [[aminoguanidinin], şeker hastalarının idrar albüminini düşürdüğünü] göstermiştir.
Studies have shown that aminoguanidine lowers diabetics’ urine albumin.
embedded complement object-clause (that-clause)
[Kızın, [olduğundan daha büyük gösterdiğini] düşündüm.
I thought that the girl showed herself bigger than she was.
embedded complement object-clause (that-clause)
Genitive subject is semantically a specific noun. For example, the subject of an embedded existential complement clause has to be a non-specific nominative, as reflected in the noun article in English:
Bahçede köpek var. Ali, bahçede köpek olduğunu söyledi.
There is a dog in the garden. Ali said that there was a dog in the garden.
existential sentence (the subject is nominative) embedded existential complement that-clause
In contrast, the complement that-clause has the specific (definite) genitive subject:
Ali, köpeğin bahçede olduğunu söyledi.
Ali said that the dog was in the garden.
embedded complement that-clause
Genitive subjects also appear in Turkish relative clauses (noun-modifying clauses), formed through verbal embedding, specifically in participial object (girişik birleşik) clauses:
Toplantı, [[başbakanımızın yaşadığı] yerde] gerçekleşti.
The meeting took place where our prime minister lived.
embedded participial object clause
[Köpeğin kovaladığı kediyi] kucağıma aldım.
I picked up the cat that the dog was chasing.
embedded participial object clause
Sentential Subjects (Embedded Wh-Clauses)
A genitive subject can constitute an entire sentence in sentences with sentential subjects:
[[Bu gelişmelerin], doğulu vatandaşlarımızın hayatlarında ne gibi etkiler yaratacağı] ortadadır.
It is manifest what sort of effects these developments will create in the lives of our eastern fellow-citizens.
(lit. What sort of effects these developments will create in the lives of our eastern fellow-citizens is manifest.)
embedded wh-clause (sentential subject)
While the definite subjects of the verbal complements are always marked with the genitive, those of the postpositional clauses are marked with either the nominative or with the genitive suffix, depending on the context.
If fact, when it comes to the same subordinators -dik and -(y)acak, the use of genitive subjects is what differentiates relative clauses (nominative) and most noun clauses (nominative) from (most) adverbial clauses (genitive):
The subject receives genitive case marking with these postpositional clauses:
a) -ma (-ması için, -masına rağmen/ karşın, -masi gibi):
[[Aysen Hanım], çocuğunu görebilmek için] çok uğraştı. [[Aysen Hanımın], çocuğunu görebilmesi için] çok uğraştık.
Aysen tried very hard to see her child. We worked very hard for Aysen to see her child.
b) -diği/ -(y)acaği gibi expressing manner:
[Tıpkı [sinema salonları] açıldığı gibi], birçok insan film yapmaya başladı.
Just like when cinemas opened, many people began making films.
[[Elektrikçi dükkanının] açılması], [[bir bakkal dükkanının] açılması gibi] değildir.
Opening an electrician's shop is not like opening a grocery store.
Logical Subjects in Passive and Impersonal Sentences
As opposed to the grammatical nominative subject, the genitive subject is logical as it expresses the agency behind the action described in a sentence. In Turkish, logical subjects can be found in passive sentences and certain impersonal constructions:
Aslında, [[romantik aşkın], karar vermede akıl ve mantığın kullanımını engelleyen denetlenemez bir bozucu unsur olduğu] düşünülür.
In fact, romantic love is thought to be an uncontrollable disruptor that prevents the use of reason and logic in decision making.
Genitive subjects can be found in some idiomatic impersonal constructions with no grammatical subject:
Bu kazanın, hayatına mal olmasına ramak kaldı.
This accident all but cost him his life.
Specific (Definite) vs. Non-Specific (Indefinite) Genitive Subjects
Genitive subjects are typically specific (or definite).
However, if the subject is indefinite and singular, the choice of the subject case is optional: it can be either nominative or genitive. Nonetheless, even if the subject is not marked as a possessor, the verb still bears the possessed marker.
Biz, [hafta sonu yağmur yağmayacağını] duyduk.
We’ve heard that it won’t rain on the weekend.
Such indefinite nouns are often categorical, i.e., representing not a thing but rather an abstract notion of doing the activity involving such a thing. However, when the subject of a subordinate clause is plural, the subject must be in genitive case.
For example, compare:
Aysun, [mektup gelmediğini] hatırladı. Aysun, [mektupların gelmediğini] hatırladı.
Aysun remembered that no letters arrived. Aysun remembered that the letters did not arrive.
Moreover, when the subject of a subordinate clause is a proper name, a possessive, or a pronoun (e.g., herkes or hiç kimse), or the word hava, the genitive case is obligatory:
Sibel, [Ali’nin geç geldiğini] biliyormuş. Mehmet, [evinin satıldığını] duymuş.
Sibel knew that Ali was late. Mehmet has heard that his house was sold.
Ali, [herkesin toplantıya geç geldiğini] söyledi. Annem, [havanın çok sıcak olduğunu] söylüyor.
Ali said that everyone came to the meeting late. My mother said that the weather is very hot.
When the main subject and the embedded subject are the same, the subject is either not expressed (dropped) or is expressed as a reflexive pronoun:
Aysun, rezervasyon yaptıracağını söylüyor. Aysun, kendisinin rezervasyon yaptıracağını söylüyor.
Aysun says she will make a reservation. Aysun says she herself will make a reservation.
Pronominal Turkish subjects can be omitted, or dropped, because they are encoded into the Turkish predicate.
Turkish as a Null-Subject & Pro-Drop Language
One of the distinctive properties of the Turkish language is the licensed omission (or dropping) of personal and possessive pronominal subjects from sentences.
Like English verbs, Turkish verbs agree with the subject in person and number. Turkish verbs, however, are more explicit in their agreement with related subjects:
[ben] [benim] Ödevimi bitirdim.
I have completed my homework.
[onlar] [onların] Kitaplarını satmışlar.
They sold their books.
Thanks to this subject-verb agreement, the information concerning the person and number of the subject is encoded into the predicate’s suffixes. This makes the pronominal subject recoverable from the context and, therefore, redundant.
While an English clause must have both the subject and the verb to make sense and qualify as independent, a Turkish clause centers around its predicate, with its subject being secondary and potentially omittable.
Linguists refer to the languages that can nullify their subjects as null-subject languages. And because such null subjects are omitted (“dropped”) pronouns, Turkish is categorized as a pro-drop (pronoun-dropping) language, in which personal and possessive pronouns replacing subjects can be dropped.
There are three constructs in which pronouns drop:
Subject of the verbal heads: [benim] Aldığım kitap.
Substantive predicates: [o] İyi bir öğretmen[dir].
Possessive noun groups: [onun] Arabası kırıldı.
Here are some examples of the dropped pronouns:
[biz] Eve gelip cay içtik. [onun] Eve dönmesi zor olmadı.
We came home and drank tea. It was not difficult for her to return home.
[benim] Yeni kitabımı gördün mü? [benim] Eve gittiğimde kapılar açıktı.
Have you seen my new book? When I got home, the doors were open.
[o] [benim] Eve gittiğimi görmüş. [o] [benim] En yakın arkadaşımdır.
He seems to have seen that I went to the house. He is my best friend.
Omission of Pronominal Subjects & Objects
For purely stylistic purposes, Turkish, just like English, strives to avoid repeating the same words in the same sentence.
In Fowler’s The King's English, such substitution of “one word for another for the sake of variety” is aptly called elegant variation. The examples provided by the style guide, in particular, focus on replacing nouns with pronouns to avoid awkward repetition.
However, the uses and functions of pronouns differ in English and Turkish in some important aspects.
English Pronominal Subjects: Elegant Topic Tracking
Personal pronouns have, arguably, become the language’s greatest invention!
The music was so loud, we could barely hear it.
The pronoun it is anaphoric (referring back) links to the antecedent the music.
Despite her disability, my aunt came to enjoy camping.
The cataphoric (referring forward) pronoun her links to the postcedent my aunt.
Now, imagine these sentences without the pronouns:
*The music was so loud that we could barely hear [the music]
*Despite [my aunt’s] disability, my aunt came to enjoy camping.
Most narratives are built around a few main characters, which means that these characters are repeatedly mentioned. Functionally, these characters tend to be subjects in respective sentences, serving as reference points throughout the narrative.
As alternative recurring referents, English personal pronouns help us keep track of the previously established topics within and across sentences.
Since English requires an explicit subject in all sentences (save for imperatives sentences and colloquial impersonal constructions), to avoid repetition, English uses placeholders—personal pronouns—to substitute the main reference points, such as the main characters’ names, locales, time periods, etc.
Personal pronouns used as reference points are indispensable not only in terms of the style.
Syntactically, they are “light” because they don’t take dependents, which makes them perfect replacements for “heavier” subjects. Relying on the use of recurring reference points, they are essential in maintaining the coherent flow of storytelling.
Not in Turkish, though.
Turkish Pronominal Subjects: Contrasting & Focusing
Since pronouns can be syntactically dispensed with, choosing to use pronouns is motivated by the need to emphasize or contrast them in the context. Moreover, pronouns should not be omitted if the identity of the referent-subject is unknown or ambiguous.
Pronouns should not be omitted in these conditions (with the focused words shown in CAPS):
1. The subject or possessor is contrastively topicalized or focused:
Bunu BEN yaptım.
It’s ME who’s done it.
2. The subject is a topic in an opening sentence:
Kızım, benim şimdi çıkmam lazım.
Honey, I need to leave now.
3. The subject is a backward-linking topic:
Dun geldik. Bizim dun gelmemiz iyi oldu.
We arrived yesterday. Our coming yesterday was a good idea.
👉 If the identity of the referent-subject is known or unambiguous and if the pronoun does not bear any special emphasis, it can and should be omitted:
[b̶e̶n̶] Bugün Ayşe’yi gördüm. [o̶] Sana selam söyledi.
I saw Ayşe today. She is sending her love.
Null Objects & Object Pro-Drop
Although Turkish verbs are not marked for agreement with objects, pronominal objects can also be dropped in Turkish. Null objects are quite commonly used instead of overt pronouns in discourse contexts where an antecedent to the null object can be easily found.
Consider this exchange, for example:
— Elma nerede?
— Çocuk [onu] yedi.
“Where is the apple?”
“The kid ate it.”
While the pronominal object can be easily dropped in Turkish, this can never be done in English.
Pronominal dropping can cross the boundary between the utterances of different speakers, regularly occurring in answers to questions:
A. Kitabını buldun mu?
B. [o̶n̶u̶] Aramadım ki.
A. Have you found your book?
B. I haven’t looked for it.
Nonlinguistic devices of the spoken language are another context for dropping a pronominal object:
A. (pointing at something) [onu] Gördün mü?
B. Tabii. Ben ... [onu] yaptım.
A. (pointing at something) “See?”
B. Sure. I did it.
Ellipsis & Suspended (Postponed) Affixation
So, to avoid repeating or rephrasing the recurring referents, Turkish speakers or writers can simply omit them. Wanting to avoid repetition in writing is a powerful motivator.
For example, both English and Turkish writers can use ellipsis, a stylistic technique that allows them to omit context-recoverable word(s).
Ali odayı [t̶e̶m̶i̶z̶l̶e̶d̶i̶], Mehmet balkonu temizledi.
Ali odayı temizledi, Mehmet balkonu [t̶e̶m̶i̶z̶l̶e̶d̶i̶].
Ali cleaned the room; Mehmet, [c̶l̶e̶a̶n̶e̶d̶] the balcony.
Turkish writers can go even further and apply the so-called suspended (postponed) affixation technique, through which they can omit certain identical suffixes and/or clitics in a series of parallel items.
Genç[i̶m̶] ve güzelim.
I am young and pretty.
Both languages generously apply ellipsis in coordinated structures, with Turkish often combining the two dropping devices:
[B̶i̶z̶] Eve gelir[i̶z̶], [b̶i̶z̶] sana yardım ederiz.
We’ll come home and [w̶e̶’̶l̶l̶] help you.
Pro-Drop vs. Ellipsis
Omission of a pronominal subject is not uniquely Turkish.
When repeated as part of a coordinated construction (e.g., a compound sentence with the shared subject), an English pronominal subject can also be ellipted (omitted). As an example, see the excerpt from Orhan Pamuk’s Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name is Red):
The original excerpt:
“Bana güvenmesini, onun hançerinin ikimize yeteceğini söyledim. Bir bardak ıhlamur bile veremediğim için özür diledim Kara'dan. Kahvehanenin lambasını yerden alırken, üzerine yıktığım mindere bir an birlikte manidar bakışlarla baktık. Elimde lamba ona yaklaştım ve gırtlağının üzerindeki belli belirsiz kesiğin dostluğumuzun nişanesi olacağını söyledim.”
The excerpt with the dropped pronouns shown:
“[Ben] [onun] bana güvenmesini, onun hançerinin [bizim] ikimize yeteceğini [ona] söyledim. [Ben] bir bardak ıhlamur bile [ona] veremediğim için [b̶e̶n̶] Kara'dan özür diledim. [Ben] kahvehanenin lambasını yerden alırken, [onun] üzerine [benim] yıktığım mindere [biz] bir an birlikte manidar bakışlarla baktık. [Ben] [benim] elimde lamba(,) ona yaklaştım ve [ben] [onun] gırtlağının üzerindeki belli belirsiz kesiğin(,) [bizim] dostluğumuzun nişanesi olacağını [ona] söyledim.”
While the Turkish original text has 17 dropped pronouns, the English translation has one dropped pronoun (the last sentence, which is a compound sentence with the shared subject (I)):
I told him to trust me and that his dagger was enough weaponry for the two of us. I apologized for not even having offered him a glass of linden tea. As I lifted the oil lamp from the floor, we both stared meaningfully at the cushion upon which I’d flattened him. I approached him with the lamp in my hand and [I] told him how the ever-so-faint cut on his throat would be a mark of our friendship.
Overall, the differences between the Turkish original text and the English translation are dramatic: While English uses 17 pronouns, Turkish uses only three!
Subject-Prominence vs. Topic-Prominence
As I mentioned before, any English sentence must have a subject, and it has to be positioned at the beginning of the sentence and before the main verb of the sentence. In English, there is a broad preference for packaging information so that the subject—being also the topic—represents old information, which comes before the new information represented by the predicate.
Specifically, it’s the object or complement of the predicate that represents the new information, for English nouns generally convey more information than verbs. Moving such an object or complement in front of the sentence, before the subject, would shift the stress positions within a sentence and create a marked sentence with a pronounced topic.
English is classified as a subject-prominent language, while Turkish can be both a subject- and topic-prominent language.
In Turkish, on the other hand, pronominal subjects are typically dropped unless they are specifically emphasized. This means that many sentences in Turkish start with a topic instead, which is syntactically either an object or complement.
Having a topicalized object or complement does not create a sentence with a double subject. Nor does it shift the stress positions within a sentence.
In other words, topics in Turkish sentences are more central than subjects, the latter often being dispensed with. Whether the subject is present or not, the topic can independently move and become contrastive or otherwise emphasized. In English, the topic can only move in relation to the subject, with the latter being more central to the structure of the sentence.
This is why linguistics classify English as a subject-prominent language, whereas Turkish is viewed as a either topic-prominent language or both subject- and topic-prominent language.