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I hope this doesn't count as one of the は/が difference duplicates (that isn't what I'm asking), but I'm slightly confused about how to think of the は particle. I've heard it called the "topic marker", but I've also read a separate explanation about it being an "emphasizer" that connects subject/predicate: An historical grammar of Japanese.

Is this a better way to think of it? Which is closer to how it's used in the colloquial/modern grammar?

  • I'm a bit confused why you're asking. Do you think calling it a "topic marker" or "emphasizer" is going to help you be more proficient using は? I'd say not. It's just a convenient name for talking about things. は can definitely be used to emphasize things, but, if you're going to talk about it, calling it a topic marker will be much better understood by others. At any rate, my point is that if you can clarify why you feel it's important to know what to call は you're more likely to get an answer that will be helpful to you. – A.Ellett Jun 18 '17 at 23:40
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    Let me clarify- I simply would like to know why it's a "topic marker" despite the fact that it can be overridden with も/が/other particles. – user22604 Jun 18 '17 at 23:59
  • Awesome! That helps because that's a bit more nuanced. – A.Ellett Jun 19 '17 at 0:14
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    @AndreasBinneboese Limited to the modern language, it seems reasonable to call it topic particle, because the topic usage is prominent among several usages of は (or わ which is a derivative from the same origin), or from a different angle, は stands out among several ways to indicate the topic, especially in written language. In old language, the topic usage is not representative compared with the one introduced in your link. – user4092 Jun 19 '17 at 5:30
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    can you clarify what you mean by overridden with も/が/other particles? If anything が can be overridden by は as I understand "override" but maybe you mean something else? – virmaior Jul 20 '17 at 14:45
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Is “は” really a “topic marker”?

Yes, it is.
A Japanese subject (主語{しゅご}) is not necessarily the action maker, but is actually purely 'subject'; it's always the topic/theme to us, native Japanese speakers.

Cf: An English subject is also not an action maker when the verb is a link verb like is or seem. However, the grammar term 'subject' seems to have been defined as the action maker of the verb.

は is considered as 係助詞{かかりじょし}; it determines the ending (main) verb (phrase). Some linguists consider it as 副助詞{ふくじょし} from the perspective of its complementing (adverbial function to) the verb.
(が is considered as 格助詞{かくじょし}, the case marker, and is good for being used in modifying clauses. が also makes a sentence without any は, but は is the one to talk about general ideas; が introduces a happening, and sometimes it doesn't make any difference whichever is used.)

I've heard it called the "topic marker", but I've also read a separate explanation about it being an "emphasizer" that connects subject/predicate:

The particle は has a sense of comparing, while が has a sense of exclusion, but emphasis actually can be done by any particle.

I think, as a native speaker, I should confirm that the example sentences in Japanese brought up by @Structure are all perfectly natural.

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Yes, thinking of は as a topic marker is a good stepping stone to learning the purpose that は really serves in the Japanese language. I have also heard that が is an emphasizer. In truth, depending on the usage, they are both types of emphasizers because they call attention to the sentence subject or conversation topic. How you think about them depends on how far you are in your study of the Japanese language. If you have not yet had an epiphany about their meanings then I would say you should continue to think of は as a topic marker. I will try to elaborate though.

When you use は, you are calling into existence the notion of something - it may be a sentence subject or conversation topic - and subsequent statements and perhaps even an entire conversation will revolve around that thing. In this sense, は is both a sentence subject and conversation topic marker. Getting more complex, as it tends to be in real Japanese conversations, you can use multiple instances of は or start invoking が to add emphasis and contrast.

This probably makes little-to-no sense without an example, so check this out and assume this is a full conversation from start to end - if it helps, think like two friends walked into a pet shop and started talking. I don't think you would ever find this explanation in a book, and I am not going to explain every bit of grammar in detail, but I think this should help.

Person A: 犬は可愛いです。
(ひらがな: いぬ は かわいい です。)
(Romaji: inu ha kawaii desu.)
(English: Dogs are cute.)

  • Here, は is both a conversation topic and sentence subject marker. Dogs are the topic in the conversation, and dogs are also the subject in this sentence.

Person B: いや、私は猫が可愛いと思います。
(ひらがな: いや、わたし は ねこ が かわいい と おもいます。)
(Romaji: iya, watashi ha neko ga kawaii to omoimasu.)
(English: Nah, I think cats are cute.)

  • Person B disagrees with Person A. To do this, they set the sentence subject to themselves (私は) and they are stating something that contrasts with Person A so they use が to do that (猫が). The topic of the conversation remains dogs, but with this sentence cats are also added to the list of conversation topics. If you didn't say it like this and randomly start talking about cats, then you would be considered rude for starting a different conversation.

Person A: でも、私は、犬は一番可愛いと思います。猫が可愛いと感じたことはありません。
(ひらがな: でも、わたし は、いぬ は いちばん かわいい と おもいます。 ねこ が かわいい と かんじた こと は ありません。)
(Romaji: demo, watashi ha, inu ha ichiban kawaii to omoimasu. neko ga kawaii to kanjita koto ha arimasen.)
(English: But I think dogs are the cutest. I never felt that cats were cute.)

  • Person A is going to acknowledge Person B's opinion but be a little obstinate. To show that, they start by saying でも, then set the sentence subject back to themselves (私は) and then refer to the conversation topic of dogs again (犬は) and share the opinion that dogs are the cutest (一番可愛いと思います). They even go so far as to clearly state their opinion of cats (猫が) in contrast to their opinion of dogs by stating they never felt cats were cute (可愛いと感じたことはありません)

As a side note, in Japanese culture, in addition to it being rude to start new conversations without continuing one started by someone else, Person A and Person B would not outwardly disagree with each other this much unless they were close friends. Otherwise they probably wouldn't become closer friends after this exchange. We don't care about Person A and Person B's relationships here, though. We just want to look at different usages of は and が as well as the interplay between the two.

If I were to give some advice, it would be that in Japanese you have "conversation topics" and "sentence subjects". は and が are used to identify both, which is confusing. Try to identify and distinguish between the two. In some cases は and が can even mark the sentence subject and conversation topic at the same time, such as in the first sentence by Person A above.

  • Say, apparently は is part of a class of particles called 係助詞 (I believe this roughly translates to "connection helping-words"). Due to this name, could this mean that は's true meaning is one of predicate connection/emphasis? – user22604 Jun 19 '17 at 20:19
  • Wait, I just realized something. The classic 「僕は鰻だ。」might support this idea as well- one explanation for the idea that "I am an eel" could be interpreted as "I will have eel to eat" is that は could just link the two parts of the sentence instead of showing a connection between the subject and verb specifically; the ability to show contrast/"topicalization" could have evolved from this concept. Could a native weigh in on this? – user22604 Jun 19 '17 at 23:52
  • I am not a native, and have not extensively studied Japanese grammar - I learned it organically by living and doing business in Japan for many years. However, what you have said rings true to me. At a restaurant, I would say 僕は鰻だ to mean "I will have eel". Given the situational context, nobody would think I am calling myself an eel. But if I am goofing off and wearing a silly costume, then contextually I could be joking that I am an eel. So yes, to me, the usage and meaning differs depending on context. – Structure Jun 20 '17 at 6:30
  • @AndreasBinneboese It has little to do with nature of は. You can say sentences like 私 が ウナギだ or 砂糖が太る (which looks like "sugar gains weight" but actually means that you would gain weight with sugar). – user4092 Jun 20 '17 at 14:12
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    誰もが is a word that expresses "everyone" without using topics. – user4092 Jul 21 '17 at 23:28

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