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Topicalization in The Witcher 3 and in Scandinavian

I’ve recently started playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015),  a videogame set in a fantasy world where you’re paid to help people with whatever they’re having issues with. And their issues can vary a lot. One of the missions in the game is that of the Pellar, a soothsayer who can speak to the dead. Among other things, you can help the Pellar and his supporters raise the dead at Forefather’s Eve.


The Pellar (image source)

Being a character who spends a lot of time either alone, praying or speaking to the dead, the Pellar has a peculiar way of speaking. Here are some quotes from the game:

  • Across the lake we must journey.
  • There, in the circle of stones, we shall meet.
  • Beyond all help, some will be.

To some extent he is using Yoda language in that he, at least in the first and third example, “fronts” the predicate. It doesn’t seem like the Pellar uses Yoda language as a standard, however. He often uses standard English SVO constructions as well, which made me start wondering why I was so perplexed by his way of speaking. What this reminds me of is topicalization in the Scandinavian languages.

Since Mainland Scandinavian languages, like English, do not have overt Case marking for common nouns, it is strictly SVO, meaning that the standard sentence structure consists of the subject, followed by the verb and then the (potential) direct object or other arguments. Old Norse, with its overt Case marking, has constructions in which declarative clauses are verb-initial, meaning that a construction like ‘eat you food’ could mean ‘you eat food’ (see Haugen, 2001). Later on the V2 rule would end up being fairly strict in all Scandinavian languages, stating that in declarative clauses, the finite verb is the second element to appear. Scandinavian has left behind verb-initial declarative clauses (as far as I know).

The fact that Mainland Scandinavian syntax tends to be so rigid is one of the reasons why it’s so interesting that it so easily allows for topicalization, arguably more so than English. Consider the following sentence:

(1)    Hunden  jagar    katten.                                                 [Norwegian]

dog.DEF chases cat.DEF

The construction in (1) is ambiguous in writing, and it could mean either that the dog is chasing the cat or that the cat is chasing the dog. In spoken language topicalized elements are stressed, clarifying that the first constituent is not the subject as would normally be expected. In English, you could make a construction like The cat, the dog chases, but this is marginal, and it isn’t ambiguous due to the lack of V2. The topicalization of adverbials is much more regular in English. Sentences like the Pellar’s Across the lake we must journey is an example of this.

Topicalization often has the effect of putting focus on a certain constituent over the focus that the subject normally would have. What’s interesting about the Pellar’s use of topicalization, then, is that he does it regardless of focus. In Beyond all help, some will be, the point isn’t that some will be ‘beyond all help, among other things’. In the way that the Pellar is saying these sentences, they seem to have the same meaning as Some will be beyond all help in standard English. The Pellar is topicalizing without changing the focus, which makes it seem incredibly unnatural and makes us as players feel off about him.

Let me know if you have any thoughts about the Pellar, or topicalization, or both! See also my other post about constituents and linearity in Heptapod.

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