Conlangery 110 medallion

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Today Christophe joins us as we talk all about copulas, or copulae, however you want to talk about them.

Special mention: Intro video for Britton’s new film Conlanging

Top of Show Greeting: Dutch (submitted anonymously)

Links and Resources:

9 Responses to “Conlangery #110: Copulae”

  1. Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets

    First things first: George mentioned the Conlanging Documentary intro video, but didn’t link to it. Let’s remedy that here: :).

    Second, while we gave examples of how copulae are handled in natlangs, we’ve not given a single example of how some conlangs have done it. Just wanted to correct that here with a short explanation of the Moten copula.

    In Moten, the main copula is the verb atom, one of the two verbs that actually has finite forms (and which is used as auxiliary with other verbs lacking those finite forms). Although it’s usually translated as “to be”, it differs from the English “to be” in various ways:

    Atom patterns in terms of grammar as a transitive verb. In other words, to use the nomenclature of the podcast, the copula complement is put in the accusative case. As said in the podcast, it’s not unknown in natlangs. The Arabic non-present copula kāna does the exact same thing.

    Atom is limited in its use to definition (“this is a table”), identification (“I am the doctor”) and categorisation (“I am a doctor”). That’s it. Where English uses “to be” for other purposes, Moten uses other verbs. For instance, for qualification (“I am happy”), Moten uses the other auxiliary verb: agem, which properly means “to have” and marks possession. That’s because Moten actually lacks adjectives, and instead uses abstract nouns. To say “I am happy” in Moten, you basically have to say “I have happiness”. For location, Moten has a special location verb izunlaj which simply means “to be located at”. Finally, for existence (the meaning of “to be” in “to be or not to be”), Moten has two existential verbs: jagi and ispej, which both mean “to exist”, but are restricted by animacy (jagi is used for small animals, objects and concepts, while ispej is used for large animals and humans), a bit like aru and iru in Japanese.

    – Interestingly, and relevant to that “copula cycle” we mentioned in the podcast, in Moten those two existential verbs can be used in expressions that are best translated as attribution (i.e. qualification). When an abstract noun in the instrumental form is added to an existential construction, it turns it into a qualification. In other words, saying “I exist with happiness” (or “I exist happily”) in Moten is equivalent to saying “I am happy”, and that construction is a common alternative to the possessive construction with agem I described above.

    So, as you can see, even if you decide to keep your copula verbal, you can still play a lot with both its syntax and semantics.

    • admin

      I have added the intro video into the post now. Thank you for reminding me.

  2. Shemtov

    Actually, in regards to the Biblical Hebrew Zero-present-tense copula, the modern use of the 3p pronoun had some use in the Bible as sort of an “emphatic” copula, emphasizing the equivalency between the subject and predicate. 1 Kings 18:39 has the Phrase:
    Y*H*WH hu ha-E*lohim
    lord he DEF-god
    “The Lord is God”.
    Even though
    Y*H*WH ha-E*lohim
    lord DEF-god
    would be acceptable Biblical Hebrew.

  3. Roman Rausch

    The Russian genitive and Finnish partitive with negation occur only with the existential construction ‘there is’. That’s not weird at all – the genitive also serves here in a partitive meaning: ‘There are no books on table’ is understood as something like ‘There is not a single instance from the set of books on the table’. In normal negated equations, Russian just uses the nominative: я врач ‘I’m a doctor’, я не врач ‘I’m not a doctor’.
    But what’s weird is that it uses the instrumental case in the past and future: я был врачем ‘I was a doctor’ (I be-PAST doctor-INSTR), я буду врачем ‘I will be a doctor’.
    Another interesting thing is that the omitted present tense copula (sg. есть from est-, pl. суть from sunt-) is usually artificially resubstituted in scientific publications, because one would otherwise run into awkwardness with sentences like ‘the probabilty to find x is 0.3’ or ‘if x is y, then 2x is 2y’.

  4. [hɒvəɹʷɪŋɡ ɪn mɪd ɛː]

    William, Spanish doesn’t have a separate verb for “to stand”, for people at least. You say “estar de pie” and this is also the same or similar in almost all other Romance languages (Portuguese: “estar em pé”; French “être debout” or “se tenir debout”; Italian: “stare in piedi”; Romanian “a sta (în picioare)”; Catalan “estar dret”). Aromanian and Dalmatian are the only exceptions to this that I could find.

  5. Lao Kou

    Regarding 是了 (shì le): Its usage is indeed limited, but there. The expression 就是了 (jiù shì le) can be tacked onto the end of a phrase with the sense of “And that’s that/that’ll be that.”, often translated as “just”. There’s also the sentence, 又是那样了 (yòu shì nàyàng le) for “It’s (back) that way again.”

    Beyond those less frequent usages (which may be open to other analyses, I suppose), the negative 不是(…)了 (búshì (…) le) for “isn’t (…) anymore”, is, as I’m sure George and William are aware, perfectly acceptable and rather gets a workout. 🙂

  6. Keegster

    I’ve found using the nominative in constructions like ‘It’s I’ has more emphasis on the first person singular pronoun than ‘It’s me’ has. That’s how I use ‘It’s I’ in any case.


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