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Review of  The Grammar of Copulas Across Languages

Reviewer: Aroldo Leal de Andrade
Book Title: The Grammar of Copulas Across Languages
Book Author: Maria J. Arche Antonio Fabregas Rafael Marin
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 31.1361

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This is a book with twelve chapters, representing a selection of talks given at the Workshop ‘Copulas Across Languages’ held at the University of Greenwich in June 2015.


The twelve contributions are organized according to broad topic types, starting with the ‘nature of copulas’ (Chapters Two to Four), then passing through chapters on ‘formal operations that copular structures can inform’ (Chapters Five to Eight) and finishing with ‘structures where copulas appear’ (Chapters Nine to Twelve). Nevertheless, these topics are not shown as parts of the book. The first chapter is an introduction to the whole volume.

Chapter One (“Main questions in the study of copulas: categories, structures, and operations”), written by the volume organizers María J. Arche, Antonio Fábregas, and Rafael Marín, presents the main topics related to the study of copulas, followed by an overview of the chapters. They point out three core issues in the analysis of copulas:

-the nature of grammatical categories expressing copulas (most proposals assume that they are support elements merely denoting formal features)
-the working of agreement, phi and EPP (movement) features
-the contribution of copulas to defining the type of clause, such as predicational and specificational clauses, or informationally-marked constructions clefts and passives.

Interesting research topics discussed in several papers consist in the existence of different types of copulas in the same language (i.e. pronominal and verbal copulas) and contexts for copula omission.

In Chapter Two (“Copulas and light verbs as spellouts of argument structure: Evidence from Dene languages”), Nicholas Welch proposes that copulas are purely phonological spellouts of morphosyntactic structure, being very similar to light verbs. In other words, copulas have little or so semantic content. Welch then presents the different types of copulas in two Dene (Athapaskan) languages, roughly translated as different types of little v’s, some encoding individual-level, others, stage-level predicates, others including a Voice Projection.

Theresa O’Neill analyzes in Chapter Three (“The support copula in the left periphery”) the main features of Amalgam Specificational Copular (ASC) sentences, as in a sentence like “That’s her biggest problem, is she can’t find a job”. According to O’Neill, this non-standard construction displays a copula as mere support for inflectional morphology. However, the copula is not inserted into T/Infl, but at the left periphery of the clause, which is the only clausal domain effectively projected. She argues that the tense form is fake in view of semantic intuition and experimental data. Inflection is modelled in terms of phi-feature sharing by downward feature-transmission. In defence of “be” as the phonetic realization of an elsewhere finiteness morpheme, the author discusses data from Headlinese, i.e. the grammar found in newspaper headings, in which the copula is omitted in [-finite] contexts.

Chapter Four, entitled “The copula as a nominative Case marker” and written by Kwang-Sup Kim, closes off the group of contributions enquiring into the nature of copulas. It puts forward a basic tenet: the morpheme “-i” that has been identified as a copula in Korean is in fact the realization of Nominative Case. The main argument shows that these items are phonologically identical, and are subject the same distributional restrictions (for instance, in some negative sentences and in structures compatible with delimiters such as “–man” (‘only’) and “–(n)un” (‘too’). For Kim, this idea has been hindered by the fact that in Korean there may be multiple case assignment, especially whenever a nominal predicate is present. In order to show this, he presents a series of evidence against previous approaches, and discusses apparent counterexamples. He closes the text by presenting the thematic structures of copular constructions, i.e. referentiality statuses and theta-role assignment of different nouns in various types of sentences.

In Chapter Five (“Number matching in binominal small clauses”), Susana Bejar, Jessica Denniss, Arsalan Kahnemuyipour, and Tomohiro Yokohama investigate binominal small clauses. In many of these, the predicate agreement features seem to depend on those of the subject, in a sort of covariation, as illustrated in “Mary is {a violinist / *violinists} in two orchestras,” although the number matching requirement is not found in other examples, whose interpretation depends on the context. The authors consider the requirement to apply as a consequence of Merge Concord, an operation that involves copying the value of a shared feature between two elements undergoing Merge. The contexts in which no concord is enforced are said to be the reflex of the structure of the DP: too small, i.e. lacking functional structure (bare nouns); too big, so that the number feature on D becomes inaccessible (shell nouns, which refer to a proposition); or with a referential second DP, in which the number feature is valued DP-internally.

Chapter Six (“Agreement with the post-verbal DP in Polish dual copula clauses”) by Anna Bondaruk, entertains a proposal for a noticeable fact in Polish: clauses with two copulas (one pronominal and one verbal) differ from those with just one copula, in that verbal agreement takes place with the postverbal DP (cf. page 108):

(i) Ci zawodnicy to {była /*byli} drużyną piłkarską.
these players-NOM.3PL.VIRILE {was-3SG.F /*were-VIRILE} team-NOM.3SG.F football
‘These players are a football team.’

Dual copula sentences may occur in the two main types of copular constructions (predicational and specificational). The verbal copula may be dropped only in the present tense of specificational sentences, which are usually conveyed by a pronominal copula. If the copular sentence includes a 1st or 2nd person pronoun, the verb must agree with it, no matter its position. Bondaruk proposes that the pronominal copula “to” is a reflex of a Pred head, whereas the verbal copula is placed in v. The preverbal DP moves to Spec,TP due to T’s EPP feature. Evidence that this is an A-position comes from binding and negative polarity items. This movement occurs, in apparent violation to locality, due to complete feature valuation between T and the DP, also involving a Topic feature (Mikkelsen 2005). She also posits that there is Multiple Agree in dual copula clauses for phi-feature valuation, which occurs independently from EPP satisfaction.

In Chapter Seven, entitled “On PERSON, animacy, and copular agreement in Czech,” Jitka Bartošová and Ivona Kučerová develop a case study of copular clauses with two Nominative DPs. The authors show that Czech grammar imposes a restriction on gender matching if one of these Nominative DPs is a pronoun. For instance, if the topic such as ‘a nice man’ is available in the context, the copula must be inflected for masculine, not feminine gender (cf. page 132):

(ii) #Byla to zdravotní sestra.
was.F.SG to health sister.F.SG
Intended: ‘He (=the nice man) was a nurse.’

The authors show that the pronoun corresponds to the subject of predication and that it is phi-feature deficient. Verbal agreement may occur either with the DP subject of predication or with the DP predicate. In the latter case, the gender of the antecedent of “to” must match the gender of the DP predicate. In order for this to occur, the antecedent must be animate. Similarly to the previous chapter, Multiple Agree is adopted as a way to ensure feature valuation. This system becomes more evident in sentences with a compound tense (in the past), because the participle agrees in gender with the DP predicate. The restriction on gender matching is derived from a presupposition on the syntax-semantics interface which dialogues partially with the proposed system: if the pronoun “to” has an animate antecedent, it will be marked [+person], thus inheriting the presupposition associated with the gender feature in the Multiple-Agree chain. The chapter finishes with a discussion on clauses with DPs marked with Instrumental case, and their restriction to clauses having reference to a proposition.

Chapter Eight (“Aspects of the syntax of ‘ce’ in French copular sentences”), by Isabelle Roy and Ur Shlonsky, includes a cartographic analysis for the distribution of “ce” in French clefts. They question the relevance of Higgins’ (1973) classification of copular sentences and propose instead that the distribution of “ce” is structurally conditioned, in that it is connected to the fact that the post-copular nominal is focalized, as in (cf. page 155):

(iii) Jean c’est mon meilleur ami.
Jean CE-is my best friend
‘Jean is my best friend.’

They adopt Belletti’s (2001) low focus position (at the vP periphery) as the projection hosting the focused constituent. Besides, the idea of a ‘subject of predication’ in line with Cardinaletti (1997) is considered as the position of the pre-copular DP. Unlike in Cardinaletti’s work, two subject positions above TP are considered, and “ce” is said to merge at the specifier of the lower one, as an expletive pronoun. The movement of the pre-copular DP occurs after the movement of the predication phrase PredP to a position between the two subject projections. A similar solution is applied to inverse (i.e. specificational) copular constructions, in which “ce” is obligatorily used. Regarding adjectival predicates, Danon’s (2012) approach for the pronominal copula “ze” in Hebrew, according to which the DP phi-features are invisible for agreement, is adopted. Yet, they suggest (similarly to what is said in Chapter 5 regarding shell nouns) that the DP structure becomes more complex as a consequence of shifting definite descriptions into abstractions over individuals, worlds, and situations, thus hindering access to these phi-features. This chapter is the last one on the topic ‘formal operations that copular constructions can inform’.

In Chapter Nine (“The role of the copula in periphrastic passives in Russian”), Olga Borik analyzes the semantic effects related to the presence or absence of the copula in Russian passive sentences. According to previous work, without the copula, the relevant clauses show a present interpretation, whereas with it, a past interpretation arises. The author questions this idea, together with the proposal embodied in Paslawska & von Stechow’s (2003) work, who put forward that the absence of the copula could serve as a diagnostic for stative/adjectival passives in this language. She equally questions their proposal of a Result Parameter related the to this variation. In order to develop her counterargument, Borik demonstrates that ‘present tense’ passives can be both stative and eventive; besides, some Greek data, a language potentially similar to Russian according to the Result Parameter, are shown to be inconclusive regarding the relation between adjectival passives and the eventive interpretation. She then presents a fine semantic characterization for past participle passives in Russian, so as to show that no relevant interpretative differences are to be found between zero and overt copulas. Both state and event modifiers can be found in the same sentence, but the former may occur in either low or high position of the clausal spine. A piece of evidence in this direction consists in the placement of temporal modifiers, which is meant to reflect their attachment place. Finally, Borik suggests that the distinction between stative and eventive passives may be marked in the form of the participle in Russian, more specifically by long forms such as “narisovannyj” (‘painted’), instead of “narisovan”.

In Chapter Ten (“The copula in certain Caribbean Spanish focus constructions”) by Luis Sáez, the discussion is centered on a focus construction involving just the inclusion of a copula (cf. page 191):

(iv) Juan compró fue UN LIBRO.
Juan bought.3SG was.3SG a book.FOCUS
‘It was a book that Juan bought.’

The author presents his proposal for this construction, according to which the copula pertains to a cleft, the whole construction being related to another one known as a Horn Amalgam, discussed in Lakoff (1974): “John is going to I think it is Chicago”. He follows Kluck (2011) in assuming that two clauses, the first of which includes a variable, are joined by Parenthetical Merge: (a) ”John is going to e.” and (b) ”I think [it is CHICAGO that John is going to.]”. In this structure, the variable ‘e’ is licensed by co-reference with the clefted DP “Chicago”. The difference with respect to the Spanish construction at hand is that the second, interrupting clause is a cleft. Sáez then compares his own approach to previous ones, in terms of predictions and shortcomings. He completely dismisses proposals relating the construction either to a biclausal structure with a reduced pseudocleft, or to a monoclausal structure with the copula as a focus-marker. Sáez considers that Camacho’s (2006) proposal, according to which the copula heads an equative copular clause base-generated as an adjunct of the VP including the main verb, is better than previous ones; yet he shows that it makes wrong predictions regarding the type of focus, which is indeed exhaustive according to the tests in Kiss (1998). Lastly, Sáez comments in passing on two proposals intended to explain a very similar construction found in Brazilian Portuguese, and suggests that his proposal for Spanish is applicable to this grammar as well.

Chapter Eleven (“Variation in Bantu copula constructions”), by Hannah Gibson, Rozenn Guérois, and Lutz Marten, presents a comparative study on micro-variation in copula expression, drawing on a range of Bantu languages. Copulas may be expressed by invariant or inflected construction, by tonal marking (more specifically by tone lowering or deletion), or simple omission. In the second part of the chapter, the authors present a more systematic case study on five languages, noticeably Mongo, Rangi, Digo, Swahili, and Cuwabo, now discussing restrictions on the interpretation and distribution of copulas. Different languages use distinct expressive forms in predicative, possessive, locative and negative contexts, with varying distribution. Another studied aspect is whether copulas in some languages are compatible with distinct tense-aspect interpretations or not (in this case being determined solely by the context). Finally, different copula forms are analyzed according to their combinatorial properties, in terms of following categories. For instance, in Makhuwa, Predicate (tonal) Lowering can be used with nouns but not with personal and demonstrative pronouns, among other categories, in which the overt invariable copula “ti” must be used instead (examples from van der Wal 2009:122 on page 232):

(v) a. nakhúku
b. Mwaánúni ulánakhukú.
‘This bird is a crow.’

After these descriptive sections, the authors end the chapter by discussing some restrictions derived from comparative and theoretical implications, which are used to present a sketch of a formal proposal for Swahili copulas.

In Chapter Twelve, entitled “Predicational and specificational copular sentences in Logoori,” Nicoletta Loccioni describes the distribution of a copular alternation in Logoori, a Bantu language spoken in Kenya with one invariant form (“ne”) and an agreeing form (“kuva”). While the two forms can be found in predicational clauses, only “ne” is accepted in identificational and specificational clauses; and only “kuva” is accepted in locative, temporal, existential or possessive clauses. After descriptively presenting other properties of the two copulas, Loccioni proposes a formal analysis for their distribution, around the assumption of a PredP projection. For her, “kuva” is the spellout of a raising verb selecting PredP which is incorporated to T, whereas “ne” corresponds to a functional head at the left periphery that allows dislocation, either of the subject of predication, or of its nucleus. Her proposal concentrates on the difference between specificational and predicational clauses. This chapter is the last one of the book, and closes off the group of texts dealing with the topic ‘structures where copulas appear’.

The book also includes a references list for all the contributions and an index of terms and languages.


The Grammar of Copulas across Languages is a valuable addition to the literature on copulas. It achieves the goal of providing “a crosslinguistic survey of the theoretical debates around copular constructions from a generative perspective”, as stated in the back cover. Besides, it shows a good transition between its chapters, despite its origin as an organized volume. Although some readers will search for individual contributions, the reading of Chapter One is especially recommended as a nice summary of the basic questions regarding the grammar of copulas nowadays.

Although this is primarily a book including generative proposals, the title emphasizes its typological aspect. I believe this is misleading. Some unattentive reader may expect to find more detailed comparisons among languages, and more contributions on underrepresented languages. Although the volume indeed has some chapters on non-Indo-European languages, these are limited to three (Chapters One, Eleven and Twelve) out the eleven chapters with original contributions. Only Chapter Eleven makes a systematic typological work, and because of that it barely has a formal proposal for any specific language. Two chapters are exclusively dedicated to English, and the other six, either to Romance or Slavic languages. Notwithstanding that, there are indeed individual efforts to make comparisons with other languages, and I believe this misrepresentation is not a problem per se, because the theoretical works are indeed valuable, and have a good potential of being replicated to other languages.

A related comment regards how books on generative syntax could make better usage of comparisons. First, by observing the implications of a proposal (originally tailored for a specific language) for other languages. Second, by making clear comparisons of close languages. Third, by identifying topics for further research from a typological work, without the intention of presenting a very theoretically profound study. I believe that, while most of the chapters in this book conform to the two first types of contributions, the latter one is also very valuable. I was glad that this book included Gibson, Guérois, and Marten’s paper (Chapter Eleven) because it can provide a first exploration of topics to be discussed in future works dedicated to underrepresented (or endangered) languages. Yet, the discussion could concentrate only on morphosyntactic aspects in the expression of copulas, because tonal lowering alone is too complex, empirically and theoretically, to be compared to other phenomena. Regarding this issue, the type of category involved in the lowering (in terms of the lexical/functional divide) was not mentioned as a possible explanation for the mentioned restrictions.

The value of organized volumes such as these come from the joint effort of editors, authors and reviewers. I have already mentioned the nice work by the editors; surely the reviewers have also done a great job, since almost no serious mistake or typo was found throughout the book. Nevertheless, there are indeed some obscure points in some proposals, which could be made clear by a discussion on whether their crosslinguistic implications are indeed tenable:

- in Bejar, Denniss, Kahnemuyipour, and Yokohama’s paper (Chapter Five), it is said that the operation Merge Concord applies only for number features, but no word is said regarding languages with gender marking, in which it is not clear whether the same restrictions on the application of Merge Concord would take place;
- in Roy and Shlonsky’s paper (Chapter Eight), the two subject projections in “ce” sentences are said to be non-adjacent and above TP, but there are grounds to believe that no constituent may appear between the preverbal DP and “ce”;
- in Loccioni’s paper (Chapter Twelve), there is no account for the fact that the definite meaning of DPs is found only with the invariant copula (“ne”).

Another issue that comes along from reading the entire volume regards incompatibilities between the proposals that could be thought over. Of course, it is not mandatory from an organized volume to have such level of internal coherence (some of these different assumptions have indeed been pointed out by the editors themselves), but I take the opportunity to present some other issues that were not mentioned in the introductory chapter. First, some papers (as Chapter Five) assume a more traditional approach for copular constructions, involving a Small Clause at the base of the structure; most papers, though, assume that predication takes place in an X-bar schema involving a projection such as PredP. It is not clear to me that all proposals would fare well with either one or the other structure. Second, the distinction on pronominal and verbal copulas does not seem to be independently motivated. Pronominal copulas may be: a case marker (Chapter Four), a support category expressing a functional projection (Chapter Six), or indeed a nominal element inside a DP (Chapters Seven and Eight). Does this mean that variability in formal characterizations is to be accepted (perhaps even expected, if these elements result of distinct grammaticalization processes) or is it possible to make a classification on formal grounds? These types of questions could inform further investigations on these more basic topics related to copulas and the constructions they appear in.

Notwithstanding possible improvements that some of the papers could have, I believe this book is definitely to be recommended to generative linguists, especially those dedicated to the study of copulas and related constructions. Of course, any other reader interested in comparative syntax shall benefit from the book, provided that s/he is acquainted with some of the basic notions of syntactic minimalism. Reading this book was rewarding to me, and I believe it is capable of informing new works in this challenging field.


Belletti, Adriana. 2001. Inversion as focalization. In: Aafke Hulk & Jean-Yves Pollock (eds.) Subject inversion in Romance and the Theory of Universal Grammar (60-90). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Camacho, José. 2006. In situ focus in Caribbean Spanish: Towards a unified account of focus. In: Nuria Sagarra & Jacqueline Toribio Almeida (eds.) Selected Proceedings of the 9th Hispanic Linguistics Symposium (13-23). Sommerville: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

Cardinaletti, Anna. 1997. Subjects and clause structure. In: Liliane Haegeman (ed.) The New Comparative Syntax (33-63). London/New York: Longman.

Danon, Gabi. 2012. Nothing to agree on: Non-agreeing subjects of copular clauses in Hebrew. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 59:1, 85-108.

Higgins, Roger. 1979. The pseudo-cleft construction in English. New York: Garland.

Kiss, Katalin É. 1998. Identificational focus versus information focus. Language 74:2, 245-273.

Kluck, Marlies. 2011. Sentence amalgamation. Doctoral dissertation. Utrecht: LOT Dissertation Series.

Lakoff, George. 1974. Syntactic amalgams. In: Michael W. La Galy, Robert A. Fox & Anthony Bruck (eds.) Papers from the 10th Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistics Society (321-344). Chicago: Chicago Linguistics Society.

Mikkelsen, Line. 2005. Copular clauses: Specification, predication and equation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Palawska, Alla & Arnim von Stechow. 2003. Perfect Readings in Russian. In: Artemis Alexiadou, Monica Rathert, & Arnim von Stechow (eds.) Perfect Explorations (307-362). Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.

van der Wal, Jenneke. 2009. Word order and information structure in Makhua-Enahara. Doctoral dissertation. University of Leiden.
Aroldo L. de Andrade is adjunct professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG, Brazil). His work focuses nowadays on noncanonical syntactic constructions, especially clefts and pseudoclefts in Portuguese varieties and in Romance languages as well. His research interests include syntax, information structure, discourse structure, and historical linguistics.

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