LINGUIST List 7.1776

Sun Dec 15 1996

Sum: Copulas from Pronouns

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Nick Nicholas, Copulas from Pronouns

Message 1: Copulas from Pronouns

Date: Mon, 16 Dec 1996 01:01:05 +1100
From: Nick Nicholas <>
Subject: Copulas from Pronouns

Here follows the slightly belated summary of comments I received on my
query on the development of copulas from pronouns, on Linguist List.

I must say I have been heartened by the number and volume of responses
I received; I dare say my faith in the Internet as something other
than an utter waste of time has been restored! :-) My thanks to (in
order of appearance in my mailbox) Larry Trask, David Solnit, Paul
Hagstrom, Carsten Peust, Sasha Vovin, Mikael Parkvall, John Verhaar,
Cathal Doherty, Gregg Kinkley, Marina Yaguello, Jie Li, Marjory
Meechan, John Koontz, Edit Doron, Aya Katz, David Gaatone, Maik
Gibson, George Huttar, Eloise Jelineke, Rene Kriegler, Laszlo
Cseresnyesi, and Vincent DeCaen.

Regrettably, I won't have time to chase up all the tracks pointed out
to me by my colleagues right now, but this is an interesting topic,
and might make for a good dissertation somewhere :-) .

Before I proceed, let me outline my motivation in making this
query. The immediate cause was Suzette Haden Elgin's criticism of the
inventor of Klingon, Marc Okrand, for describing the pronoun in
attributive predicates, like tlhIngan ghaH "Klingon s/he", as a verb,
when this is (ostensively) merely a zero-copula construction,
something rather commonplace in human language. Haden Elgin goes so
far as to accuse of Okrand of "linguistic malpractice" against the
wide target audience he could have potentially instilled an
appreciation of grammar in.

However, the Klingon pronoun can bear the full complement of verbal
suffixes in the language, including aspect markers, negators, modal
suffixes, and evidentials. The only affix one can be reasonably sure
(from Okrand's erratic description) that it cannot bear are verbal
agreement prefixes. In that respect, referring to the pronoun as a
verb makes a good deal of sense (particularly since the corresponding
topic-comment attributive predicate construction, through accident
more than design, has ended up reanalysed as a predicate-subject
construction): in these constructions, the pronoun behaves
morphologically, and arguably syntactically, as a highly suppletive

The question which occurred to me then was, how cross-linguistically
common was it for a pronoun to be reanalysed into a fully verbal
copula. While the zero copula strategy is extremely common-place in
language, I was surprised to find no mention of pronoun-to-copula
transitions in Comrie's _Language Universals and Linguistic Typology_,
or Croft's _Typology and Universals_ and _Syntactic Categories and
Grammatical Relations_.

There were a couple of reasons I suspected the full transition from
pronoun to verbal copula might not be that commonplace. While
syntactically one does not have to go far to reanalyse a topic-comment
construction like "Comrie, he a linguist" to a subject-predicate
construction like "Comrie COPULA a linguist", the pronoun is in some
respects a fairly prototypical nominal; and particularly if the
pronoun in question remains functional as such in a language, it might
be difficult for it to acquire overt verbal morphology --- a major
analogical leap is required. Note that, for that reason, it was
particularly morphological criteria that I was interested in, rather
than syntactic or semantic criteria (like lack of referent agreement),
which would fall out rather naturally from the syntactic reanalysis of
pronoun to copula. Admittedly, not all languages *can* supply
morphological evidence of copula-hood (e.g. Chinese), but what I want
to establish is whether the full transition is possible.

Furthermore, many languages avoid having to hook verbal morphology
onto a zero copula, not by tacking it on to the pronoun, but by
retaining copulas in semantically marked contexts, such as the past
tense (eg. Russian byl) --- as pointed out by Li & Thompson

In that light, I group the responses I received into various
groups. The first involves zero-copula languages in which the pronouns
are only starting to embark on the road to becoming copulas. The
second involves pronouns which have picked up syntactic and semantic
hallmarks of copula-hood, but not morphological characteristics. The
third involves pronouns which are morphologically verb-like, and can
be argued to have become fully copulas in the framework I am talking
about. Of course, one cannot afford to be too schematic about these
matters; as John Verhaar pointed out to me, one is better off thinking
of copulas cross-linguistically as forming a continuum, a cline
ranging from 0 through nonverbal copulas (e.g. Indonesian adalah) to
verbal intransitive copulas to verbal transitives (e.g. English "this
*represents* a problem").

Before going on, I should also point out that Aya Katz' doctoral
dissertation, _Cyclical Grammaticalization And the Cognitive Link
Between Pronoun and Copula_, provides an interesting connection
between this topic and grammaticalisation. According to Katz, there
is a grammaticalisation pathway from pronoun to copula, and another
pathway from copula to pronoun. Indeed, Hebrew displays the full
cycle: Pre-Proto-Semitic to Biblical Hebrew has copula to pronoun
(Vincent DeCaen is also currently working on this particular point),
and the same pronoun (as discussed below) is becoming a copula again
in Modern Hebrew. Katz also discusses some of the other cases
discussed below: Turkic, Chinese, and Finnish. Katz establishes
fairly convincingly, it would seem, the pervasiveness of the
pronoun-to-copula grammaticalisation pathway.


Sasha Vovin pointed out the me the use of promonimal affixes as
copulas in Turkic, eg. Osmanli Turkish T"urk-"um "[I] am Turk". I'm
not sure what to make of this; this looks a lot like a
grammaticalisation arising out of a zero-copula strategy, fusing the
subject pronoun into the predicate noun, but the pronoun seems to have
been decategorialised, rather than reanalysed as a full copula in
itself. Katz considers this an instance of copula to pronoun (if I
understand him correctly); this would probably fit the data more

In another instance of 'right morpheme, wrong syntax' :-) , John
Koontz sees in the Siouan stative verb formant *-ka (e.g. *htaN-ka 'be
big') a reflex of *ka 'yon' --- although this is not yet universally
accepted. In a non-polysynthetic language, this would have developed
to a copula; like Turkish, however, it does not represent evidence for
the nominal-verbal transition I had in mind.

John Verhaar finds an incipient copula in Bahasa Indonesia determiner
itu, which also serves to mark topics (indeed, John has found
instances of itu used twice after a constituent in his corpus ---
first as a determiner, and then as a topicaliser.) Since as a
topicaliser itu introduces the predicate in topic-comment
constructions, he considers it is not far off from becoming a copula
proper itself --- all that is needed is to drop the pause between the
topicaliser and the predicate.

Irish also seems to have an incipient copula in the use of a
pronominal in equative sentences in addition to a non-verbal copula;
this is discussed in Doherty (1996); See also Dechaine & Vinet
(1992). Rene Kriegler points to a similar situation in Swahili (Ashton
1944:92-94), in which subject pronouns as copulas coexist with
zero-copula and uninflected-copula strategies.


Charles Li & Sandra Thompson (1977) deal with a number of these in
their paper _A mechanism for the Development of Copula Morphemes_. My
thanks to Larry Trask for bringing the paper to my attention; I had in
fact read through the volume it was published in at the start of my
long-suffering dissertation, but the article in question seems to have
slipped my memory.

Chinese shi4 (reconstructed as d'iek, according to Gregg Kinkley) is a
textbook case of the topic-comment to subject-predicate reanalysis I
alluded to earlier. Originally a demonstrative, as in (1), shi4 was
reanalysed to a copula around 100 AD, as in (2) (examples from Li &

(1) qiong2 yu4 jian4, shi4 ren2 zhi3 suo3 wu4 ye3
Poverty and debasement, *that* [is what] people dislike (Analects, v BC)

(2) zhu1 ke4 yue4, "ci3 shi4 An1-shi2 sui4 jin1"
All the guests said, these *are* An-shi's bits of gold (Shi4 Shuo1 Xin1 Xu3,
v AD)

shi4 as a demonstrative disappeared in Chinese by vi AD. There are no
morphological criteria for shi4 being a copula in Chinese; as David
Solnit astutely put it, "Chinese being what it is, there is no verb
morphology for shi4 to pick up". It does however pass the synactic
test of negation by bu4. In Modern Chinese, it can take predicative
nominal phrases, but not adjectival phrases. That its
grammaticalisation is incomplete is also demonstrated, as Laszlo
Cseresnyesi points out, by the fact that shi4 does not take aspect
markers in Modern Chinese.

While Modern Hebrew is not as far advanced as Chinese in this process,
it also belongs under this rubric. (Whether the peculiar circumstances
of the renewal of Hebrew are causally implicated in this is a question
for the specialists to resolve; I am interested to see how Aya Katz
addressed it.) Hebrew does not use the hyy root as a copula in the
present tense, but a zero-copula topic-comment strategy with a
demonstrative or personal pronoun. It has been argued by Berman &
Grosu (1976) and Faltz (1973) that the pronouns are behaving as
copulas: Hebrew topics cannot be indefinite, but the subjects of these
copulas can be; the copulas can be questioned; and there is no
intonation break between the putative topic and the pronoun. Finally,
a non-3SG 'topic' can occur with a 3SG-copula in some contexts. (The
illustration Li & Thompson gave was a cleft sentence, although David
Gaatone gave me the simple sentence ani hu hamelekh 'I am the king' as
an illustration; it seems individual judgements vary in Modern Hebrew,
and the status of this pronoun/copula is still in flux.)

More information on the developments in Modern Hebrew can be found in
Doron (1983), Rapoport (1987), and Katz's dissertation; according to
Li & Thompson, the facts for Palestinian Arabic are very
similar. Carsten Peust informs me Neo-Assyrian Akkadian demonstrative
shu came to serve as a copula as well --- I'd have to consult the
grammars for confirmation and details, though.

Creoles (which, as Mikael Parkvall points out, Chinese resembles in
many ways) display similar develops. Mikael pointed to John
McWhorter's recent work on Atlantic creoles (da < 'that?'; see the
1996 Journal of Pidgin & Creole Studies, American Speech 4.4 (1995),
and his recent book _Towards a new model of creole genesis_), and
Marguerite Fauquenoy-St-Jacques' work on French Guiana creole
(optional copula sa < Frence cela). George Huttar adds that Jacques
Arends has convincingly established the da < 'that' connection for
Sranan in the Journal of Pidgin & Creole Studies, and Huttar & Huttar
(1994: 132ff) discuss passim the same development in Ndyuka.

Finally, indeclinable former demonstratives ce?(e?) in Wappo, and u in
Zway, also mentioned by Li & Thompson, also count in this category as
copulas not yet displaying verbal morphology (in languages otherwise
rich in verbal morphology).


The one good example I have found of this is in several dialects of
Arabic (including Egyptian, Tunisian, and some Palestinian variants;
thanks to Carsten Peust, Eloise Jelineke, and Maik Gibson.) Eid (1983)
discusses Cairene Arabic in some detail. Like Hebrew and Palestinian
Arabic, Cairene Arabic uses a personal pronoun (huwwaa) in
present-tense attributive predicates. The difference here is that
Cairene and the other Arabic dialects have a negative circumfix,
ma-sh, which can only apply to verbs (and adjectives in Moroccan), and
which is applied to huwwaa in such constructions. So Cairene huwwaa is
here explicitly behaving like a verb morphologically.

Note that Cairene was not 'obligated' to develop verbal morphology for
the pronoun, since it also has a negative particle, mish, which can
apply to non-verbs and verbs alike. As is frequently the case in
language change, one cannot really speak of the development being
motivated to fill a gap in the system: 'drag-chain' accounts do not
seem to sit well with grammaticalisation.

In the same neck of the woods, Old Egyptian demonstrative pw became a
copula by the second millenium BC. According to Carsten Peust, "one
cannot say that this pw ever accepts verbal morphology", but from 1300
BC on (Late Egyptian) it is inflected in number and gender, although
not in the same manner as fully fledged verbs. Number and gender
marking may not be as prototypical verbal qualities as negation and
tense/aspect/mood, but provisionally I count pw as also a
morphologically verbal copula.

Wolof has an interesting variant of the pronominal copula (Robert
1992, Yaguello & Diouf 1991). Regrettably neither reference is
available in Melbourne, but the basic story is, Wolof (and
neighbouring West-Atlantic languages) lack a copula as such, but have
a suppletive pronoun paradigm, distinguished by tense, aspect, mood,
stativity, and so on, and which behave as copulas when followed by
NPs. The three values pronouns can bear when behaving as copulas are
identity/belonging, focus, and location:

suma warit la: he is my friend (my friend + he)
moo suma warit : HE is my friend (he emphatic + my friend)
mu ngi fi: he is here (he +locative + here near the speaker)

(Thanks to Marina Yaguello and Marjory Meechan for this information.)
The acquisition of TMA properties, prototypically verbal, by pronouns,
also seems to me indicative of a pronoun-to-copula shift.


Even Blind Freddy (to use an Australianism) knows that there is a
well-established pronoun-to-copula pathway, which seems to follow the
Chinese route of topic/comment -> subject/predicate fairly
consistently. Not all languages have the syntactic/morphological
machinery to allow the resulting forms to be 'fully-verbal' in the
narrow, morphological sense I adopted --- Siouan and Chinese being
cases in point. (The morphological criterion was, of course, partially
prompted by the musings of two linguists on categoriality in a
language cooked up for Star Trek, and thus are not necessarily
compelling for the entire discipline :-) .) Nonetheless, this too
occurs, certainly in North African Arabic, apparently also in Late Old
Egyptian, and in a sense also in Wolof. And the non-morphological
instances are abundant, notwithstanding the frequent TMA restrictions
on the pronominal copula. And as is frequently the case with
grammaticalisations, in some languages the binary distinction between
pronouns and copulas (or if you like, nominals and sorta-verbals) is
significantly weakened --- Modern Hebrew seems to provide the best
illustration of this here.


Ashton, E.O. 1944. _Swahili Grammar_ London: Longman.

Berman, R. & Grosu, A. 1976. Aspects of the Copula in Modern
Hebrew. In Cole, P. (ed.) _Studies in Modern Hebrew Syntax and
Semantics_. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Dechaine, R.M. & Vinet, M.T. 1992. Une Structure Predicative sans
Copule. _Revue quebecoise de linguistique_ 22.1:11-44.

Doherty, C. 1996. Clausal Structure and the Modern Irish Copula.
NLLT 14.1:1-46.

Doron, E. 1983. _Verbless Predicates in Hebrew_. Doctoral Dissertation, 
University of Texas.

Eid, M. 1983. The Copula Function of Pronouns. _Lingua_ 59: 197-207.

Faltz, A. 1973. Surrogate Copulas in Hebrew. MS. (Cited in Li & Thompson)

Huttar, G. L. & Huttar, M. L. 1994. _Ndyuka_. London: Routledge.

Li, C. & Thompson, S. 1977. A mechanism for the Development of Copula
Morphemes. In Li, C. (ed.) _Mechanisms of Syntactic Change_. Austin:
University of Texas Press. 419-444.

Rapoport, T. 1987. Doctoral dissertation, MIT.

Robert, S. 1992. _Approche enonciative du systeme verbal du wolof_
Paris: CNRS

Yaguello, M. & Diouf, L.. 1991. _Damay jang wolof_. Paris: Karthala.

 O Roeschen Roth! Der Mensch liegt in tiefster Noth! Der Mensch liegt in
 tiefster Pein! Je lieber moecht' ich im Himmel sein! --- _Urlicht_
Nick NICHOLAS, PhD candidate, Dept. of Linguistics, Univ. of Melbourne
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