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topic vs subject in Klingon and English

Thank you as always to all the contributors who are patiently answering a ton of questions. With apologies, this may be another basic one, but I'm still getting tripped up: what is the difference between the topic (if any) and the subject of a sentence? And, am I correct in thinking that when the same element is both the subject and the topic, we do not use the -'e' suffix?

p.s. In searching the forums to see if this question had already been answered, I saw a lot of posts that were unhappy with Klingon having been added to the Duolingo incubator. If that's still going on, is there anything we learners can do to counter that sentiment? I'm sure I speak for a lot of learners in saying that I'm super grateful to the contributors for all their hard work, so if there's anything I can do to chip in I'd like to.

October 3, 2019



There will always be some people who feel that Klingon is a waste of time and effort. But I think the number of learners we have here in the Duolingo course speaks for itself. I'm not sure it's worth much effort in trying to convince the non-believers of the value of studying Klingon as both a recreational and educational activity.

Part of the confusion in the use of -'e' comes from the fact that English doesn't really use topics much and doesn't have a special grammatical way to mark a topic. English uses phrases for adding topics like, "As for (the topic)...", "It is the (topic) that...", "The (topic) is the thing that..." Many linguists/grammarians will break down every English sentence as having a topic, but the Klingon topic marker has particular uses and does not mark casual topics.

In the linguistic concept that every sentence, in English, has a topic, often the topic is the same as the subject, which would be the case for a normal subject-verb-object sentence and does not get any special marking in English. So in a sentence like "A targ bit the girl," the targ is both the topic and the subject. It is this confluence of the two that is confusing you. I suppose it could be said that the same is true in Klingon, but like in English we don't mark the topic for a simple and straight forward sentence like this. If the topic and the subject are the same, then it should be treated as a subject, NOT as a topic. The topic marker is for when something special needs to be indicated on a noun. Perhaps it is better if you think of -'e' not as a simple topic marker, but rather as a "special topic" marker - it is only used when there is something special about the topic.

Since a topic marker is not needed in the case where the casual topic is the same as the subject of the verb, adding the topic marker gives the noun a special emphasis and changes how we hear the same information. The sentence, be'Hom chop targh'e', could be interpreted as, "As for the targ, it bit the girl," or "A TARG bit the girl." But it's different from the simpler more standard statement that "A targ bit the girl."

Another example of topic in English would be, "As for the girl, a targ bit her." Here we see that the girl is the topic, but she's the object of the verb in this sentence. So we can see that the topic is not always the same as the subject and needs to be detached from that idea in our minds. This kind of sentence can be created in Klingon by adding the -'e' marker to the noun that we want to emphasize this way. So the Klingon translation would probably be: be'Hom'e' chop targh.

There's another kind of topic sentence in English and that is when the topic is neither the subject nor the object. So we can have something like, "As for the wound, a targ bit the girl." Here we have set a topic that we are talking about and which acts as a setting in which our sentence happens. This can be said in Klingon as, QID'e' be'Hom chop targ.

In this course, we never use any of those types of topics. The subject will always simply be the subject and the object will always simply be the object. We never require the -'e' on those first two kinds of sentences and seldom accept it in alternate translations. If you wanted to express that last type of topic sentence, the -'e' would be required so you can mark the purpose of the extra noun in the sentence, but you won't find such a sentence in this course.

This course does, however, teach two other uses of the -'e' topic marker that are not usually presented as topics in English. And the first of these is a cause of much of the topic/subject confusion in this course. As we develop future versions of this course we may need to change how this information is presented to see if we can reduce the confusion.

When using a pronoun as the verb "to be", the pronoun represents the grammatical subject and it would be impossible to ALSO have a stated subject, except that a special rule allows you to state the explicit subject and mark it with -'e'. In the English sentence, "The Captain is a Klingon." the verb "to be" allows this to be a simple and straight forward subject-verb-object sentence. But Klingon doesn't have a verb "to be" and the grammar for such a copula would be [object] = [subject pronoun]: tlhIngan ghaH ([Klingon] = [He/She]). The pronoun is representing "the captain", but we have lost that specific information in the Klingon sentence. We can add it back in with a special function of the topic marker that allows us to say, tlhIngan ghaH HoD'e'. In this sentence HoD is NOT the subject - ghaH is the subject (and also the verb, really). Though the English sentence most closely resembles the first type of sentence demonstrated above in this post, the Klingon sentence more closely resembles the last type of sentence demonstrated above: "As for the captain, he/she is a Klingon."

The other use of -'e' that we teach is to mark the head noun in a -bogh phrase. There is a lot less confusion about that, so I won't go into it here.


This is extremely helpful. The definitions and examples you gave make things very clear, when a lot of googling had just confused me further.

Your point about using a pronoun as the verb "to be" is particularly well taken. In your last example, tlhIngan ghaH HoD'e I definitely would have said that HoD was the subject, and I see now why that mistake is also contributing to my confusion about the use of -'e'.

Thank you!


Yeah. In the English sentence, "The captain is a Klingon", there is no doubt that "the captain" is the subject. But experts could probably argue all day about the Klingon statement tlhIngan ghaH HoD'e' and whether it is more appropriate to call HoD'e' the subject or the topic. It's in the location of the subject, but it is marked as a topic, but it matches the subject pronoun, but you can't have a subject and a subject pronoun, etc., etc. Maybe it's best to think of it as neither the subject nor the topic, but rather a special grammatical rule. Unfortunately this same ambiguity makes it difficult to teach and to learn. I prefer to present it as I did above, but no matter how we present it, we don't really have room in the Tips & Notes for a detailed enough explanation, like the one above, to make sure everyone gets it. I hope you can see the distinction more clearly now as you continue your exercises.


Yes, definitely. I was actually coming back to this thread to say that after a few trips through practice mode this has already made things a lot clearer. I've seen at least a dozen exercises that I would've answered correctly (thanks to multiple choice or the hints) but not understood before, and now they seem much more straightforward. I'm not sure if it was this specific explanation, or just that I had to hear a few versions of it before the concept clicked in my head, but it finally has. Thank you again!


Just popping in to say thanks again for the zillionth explanation -- I'm having yet more fun with the course (already a high bar) now that I'm not chasing two conceptual errors back and forth.


-'e' has two separate, but related, meanings that are not clearly distinguished in The Klingon Dictionary.

First, -'e' is what is known in linguistic terminology as topic. It marks the noun or noun phrase that the sentence is all about. This is more than an English teacher trying to get you to identify the topic sentence of a paragraph; it's an explicit marking meant to set the context for the rest of the sentence.

This is the one we sometimes translate with as for. tlhIngan ghaH HoD'e' As for the captain, he is a Klingon. It's basically saying, "Now we're going to talk about the captain. He is a Klingon."

-'e' as topic is required on all pronoun-as-to-be sentences that link two nouns or noun phrases. You can't say tlhIngan ghaH HoD. The -'e' is required. You can also use -'e' as topic in front of a basic sentence if it's not the subject or object: ngogh tun'e' QongchoHpu' puq, vaj 'oH parHa'ba' As for the pillow, the child has gone to sleep, so he obviously likes it. This usage of topic is rare; we've only ever seen it once in the canon, in Star Trek V: qIbDaq SuvwI''e' SoH Dun law' Hoch Dun puS You would be the greatest warrior in the galaxy, literally As for warriors, you are the most wonderful in the galaxy.

The other meaning of -'e' is focus. Focus marks where the speaker wants to contradict or clarify the expectations of the listener. It is used in Klingon on subjects and objects. For instance, lujpu' HoD is The captain has failed. lujpu' HoD'e' is It is the captain (not someone else) who has failed or The CAPTAIN (not someone else) failed.

So we might have this series of sentences:

puq chop targh The targ bites the child.
puq chop targh'e' The TARG (not something else) bites the child.
puq'e' chop targh The targ bites the CHILD (not someone else).

Notice that in the last two, we're not necessarily saying that the targ or the child is what the sentence is all about; we're trying to emphasize that the marked word, and not something else, is being described. This is focus. You wouldn't translate these with As for the targ, it bites the child or As for the child, the targ bites it. -'e' doesn't seem to play the topic role as subject or object, it plays the focus role.

The difference between topic and focus is subtle, and even Marc Okrand got it wrong. He accepts Lawrence Shoen's correction in an article of HolQeD here: http://klingonska.org/canon/1995-06-holqed-04-2-a.txt


Thanks so much, this is very helpful. And ha! That even Dr. Okrand has made this mistake is oddly reassuring. My hard copy of the Klingon Dictionary just arrived today, and I'm finding it surprisingly enjoyable.


I can't find the post where you recommended the KLI, so am replying here -- just wanted to say thank you again. I have the Klingon version of Much Ado About Nothing now, and it's a challenge, but a super fun one. Thank you!


The Shakespeare translations are very well done with complicated metaphors and skilled translation of the poetry and meter. But if you find Shakespeare tough in the English, imagine how much tougher it is in Klingon. It's an advanced text. For Beginning readers, I might recommend The Tao Te Ching or The Art of War. For intermediate readers, ghIlghameS might be best.


Ah, I see, that's good advice. I chose Much Ado About Nothing because I know that play fairly well and thought the familiar subject might help, but I also don't want to establish bad habits. I may be missing something, but the only version I found of The Art of War (the cover says "translated from the original Klingon by Keith R.A. DeCandido") seemed to have very little Klingon in it. I'll look for the Tao Te Ching though, and didn't even realize that ghIlghameS was available. Are there any others you'd recommend? Thanks as always!

Edit: well that was easy, The Tao Te Ching and ghIlghameS are available on Amazon and on their way.



Make sure to check out the second page, too.


Wow there's so much more available than I'd ever have guessed. Material more suited for a new learner is on it's way. Looking forward and thank you!


I was the editor for Much Ado About Nothing. I must warn you that when that was translated, we knew a lot less about the language than we do now. You may find the phrasing awkward as we searched for ways to say things we didn't have words for yet. Our understanding of the grammar has become a lot more refined since then as well.


Oh wow that's great! And duly noted about the grammar. Are there other texts you'd recommend?

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