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Review of  To be or not to be? The Verbum Substantivum from Synchronic, Diachronic and Typological Perspectives

Reviewer: Maria Stambolieva
Book Title: To be or not to be? The Verbum Substantivum from Synchronic, Diachronic and Typological Perspectives
Book Author: Michail L. Kotin Richard J. Whitt
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 27.4340

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The papers in To be or not to be? The Verbum Substantivum from Synchronic, Diachronic and Typological Perspectives,’ edited by Michail L. Kotin and Richard J. Whitt, address problems related to the semantics, function and status of the specific class of so-called “substantive” or “existential” verbs – from a diachronic and diatopic perspective, combining theoretical approaches and case-studies, corpus-based and contrastive methods, traditional and generative frameworks. The major problems posed and discussed relate to suppletiveness of the conjugational forms, semantic and functional ambiguity, syntactic functions and positions. The conceptual consistency of the separate contributions within the volume is based, as stated in the Preface, on six methodological principles, namely:

1. morphological, semantic and syntactic properties of “be”-verbs have to be compared in their total complexity in many languages, with reference to their universal characteristics;

2. synchronic approaches must be combined with diachronic ones;

3. analyses should cover the totality of verbal and non-verbal complements;

4. semantic autonomy of “be”-verbs in the verb phrase is assumed;

5. the totality of the semantic potential (aspectual, modal, and categorial signals) is to be presented;

6. cases of omission of the copular verb are to be analysed against the background of basic properties of languages and against the background of other languages where the omission is impossible.

The volume includes fourteen articles (seven in English, seven – in German), grouped in four sections, or parts: Part I: Basics, Part II: Diachronic and Genetic Morphology, Part III: Syntax and Semantics from a Diachronic, Diatopic and Typological Perspective, Part IV: Status and Function: Synchronic, Contrastive and Corpus-Oriented Approaches.

Part I contains one contribution, by Michail L. Kotin: “Das Verbum substantivum aus synchroner, diachroner und typologischer Sicht”. The paper draws attention to the morphological suppletivism and polyfunctionality of “be”-verbs and outlines the major points to be discussed in the volume: the specifics of the paradigm, the status of the verb as existential, copular, auxiliary or modal, the possibility for copular “be”-omissions. The possibility for a typological classification of languages based on the semantic variation, functional specifics and grammaticalisation paths of the verbum substantivum, put forward by the author, is undoubtedly a path worth pursuing.

The only contribution in Part II, “Das Verb sein: Eine besondere Form von Suppletivismus in indogermanischen Sprachen” by Rosemarie Lühr is a cross-language diachronic study of the development of the initially regular paradigm into a more recent suppletive one, with data from Indo-European, Old Indian, Hittite, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Old Norse, Old English and Old High German. Irregularity of form is related to prominence and high frequency; suppletiveness and elimination are thus viewed as motivated language strategies.

Part III includes eight chapters.

Werner Abraham’s paper “Predicative copula+Infinitive forms and their diverse functions in German” (Chapter One) offers an in-depth analysis of the Absentive in German – which, it is demonstrated, has no paradigmatic backup. It is formed, rather, by speaker deixis, i.e. speech act proximity of the speaker is presupposed – as in telephone or doorstep conversations, to which its use is restricted. W. Abrahams’ analysis of the Absentive demonstrates that it has no property reading, that it is linked to agentive predicates and that it requires an agentive intentional external argument/subject. Following a presentation and discussion of two stage-predicate classes, the author argues in favour of a lexical classification of “event-sein” and “property-sein.”

“The construction ‘sein’ (‘be’) + Infinitive from Old High German to New High German” by Elisabeth Leiss (Chapter Two) begins by stating acceptance of the treatment of the copular verb by the Modistae – as, in its finite forms, a central building block of each and every predication, to which all predicates are decomposable -- then, surprisingly, goes on to define the copula as an auxiliary devoid of any additional grammatical and lexical components, signaling nothing more than finiteness and indistinguishable from the true auxiliary. The paper also offers a discussion of the Absentive in the context of the so-called “perfective aspect”, a diachronic note on the stages in the grammaticalisation of the progressive and a relation of the copula in two different functions to two different kinds of experience and to episodic or semantic memory.

“The auxiliation of the verbum substantivum in German (plu)perfect constructions ” by Sonja Zeman (Chapter Three) is an analysis of instances of war gewesen (a preterite of sein plus a past participle of sein) in the colloquial register of Modern High German. The author argues that the participle functions as an extension mechanism and denotes the existence of a state of being.; that the construction is neither, simply, a pluperfect, nor a new stage of grammaticalisation, but rather a hybridization, being composed of two meaningful constituents: ‘the preterite of the auxiliary which establishes a reference point that is distant from the time of speech, and the past participle which adds the meaning of aspectual closure.’ In this construction, “the participle of sein displays a high degree of grammaticalisation but nevertheless preserves its core meaning of existence.”

In his paper “Competing forms of copulative wesan in Old High German” (Chapter Four) Susumu Kuroda analyses the “verbum substantivum” wesan as primarily copulative, as distinguished from the auxiliary forming constructions with a past participle: “The OHG passive construction with wesan is highly grammaticalised and works as a grammatical unit with a unique decomposable function. This construction should be distinguished from the copular structure.” As to the copular verb itself, based on corpus-derived frequency it is defined as the typical “usage of wesan” without clear semantic content and “only serv[ing] the primary act of identification.”

Piotr Bartelik’s contribution “Das Verb bëc ‘sein’ und seine Funktionen im kaschubischen Tempus und Genussystem” (Chapter Five) is a corpus-based study offering a presentation and discussion of different copulative, tense and passive voice functions of the verbum substantivum bëc (to be) in modern Kashubian. Bëc displays a number of specific features: a suppletive present tense conjugation, an analytical past tense form and (Slavonic-Germanic) contact-induced forms. Features marking the Kashubian verbal system are: 1) Slavonic regularities in the copulative bëc -periphrasis; 2) preservation of the Slavonic analytical perfect (+bëc past participle); 3) the structure of the passive voice system; 4) bëc copulative constructions – conditioned by long contact; 4) bëc +passive participles.

Monika Schönherr’s “Die koverte ist-Prädikation im Deutschen, Gotischen und Polnischen aus diachroner und typologischer Sicht” (Chapter Six) focuses on covert predications: “be”-omission in copula-predicative constructions and existential clauses in the present tense in Germanic and Slavonic languages. The author analyses and groups overt “be”-structures in Old High German, Gothic and Polish, describes the syntactic properties and semantic components of covert be-structures and offers a discussion of the reasons and consequences of the omission.

“Zur syntaktischen Rolle von sein im deustschen sein-Modalpassiv” by Igor Trost (Chapter Seven) is a discussion of the debatable status of the sein+zu+Infinitive modal-passive construction in German from a synchronic and diachronic perspective. Following a presentation of existing analyses of the construction and of the status of sein in it (viewed as an auxiliary by some, as a modal or copula by others), I. Trost proceeds to discuss the semantics and form of the construction, the status of zu in it, the syntactic status of the elements of the construction “modal passive + gerundives” – before concluding that the construction under investigation is made up of a copular verb and a verbal adjective.

C. Jac Conradie’s contribution “The loss of BE as mutative marker in Afrikaans” (Chapter Eight) relates the story of the development of Afrikaans and of the substitution of het for is/was in the formation of the perfect of mutative verbs. This substitution is viewed in the context of the complex context of changes in the system of the language, above all: the loss of the preterite and the regularisation of the past participle (both related, according to the author, to imperfect learning). The loss of the mutative in Afrikaans is viewed as a change in the system directed towards the formal restoration of two important oppositions: Present-Past and Active-Passive.

Part IV contains four chapters.

Chapter One, “Expressing possession with HAVE and BE” by Liisa Buelens is a presentation and formal syntactic analysis of affected possession structures in Flemish (e.g. We hebben het nog gehad dat onze valiezen plots openscheurden/ We zijn nog geweest dat onze valiezen plots openscheurden – We’ve had it happen to us that our suitcases suddenly ripped open), which she calls Flemish Event Possessives (FEVP). While cross-linguistically possession is marked either with “have”-verbs and a Nominative subject or by “be”-verbs and a Dative subject, Flemish is an exception in that the subject of the “be”-possessive is nominative. L. Buelens proposes 1) that the Possessor in the FEVP structure moves to the Specifier position of light verbs higher up in the syntactic structure, where it receives Nominative case, and 2) that “have” and “be” in the structure are “dummy” verbs, related to copulas.

Ana-Maria Barbu’s “A fi ‘be’ as a modal verb in Romanian” (Chapter Two) is a discussion of Romanian fi as a deontic modal expressing obligatory volition, in patterns in which fi appears as either a raising or a control verb with a small clause complement. The author observes that fi, like other modals in Romanian, can be either a raising or a control verb and, further, that the raising pattern is also appropriate for existential fi, for the copula and, she claims, the auxiliary. Barbu goes on to assert that the raising status is best foregrounded by the structures in which “be” is omitted – they highlight that the predication itself can be a stand-alone meaningful clause and does not depend on fi. This in turn should prove that fi/be has no semantic content, but has a functional role similar to raising verbs – which fact could open the possibility for a unified approach to different types of be.

Piotr Krycki’s “Konvergenz der syntaktischen und semantischen Funktionen von sein, to be und być im Deutschen, Englischen und Polnischen.” (Chapter Three) is a corpus-based study of German sein and translation equivalents in English and Polish. The verb is found to have copular, auxiliary, and modal functions and to be able to appear as a full verb. Sein and its functional equivalents in the other two languages express existence, position, character, origin, etc. However, the corpus also demonstrates several asymmetry types. As the author himself points out, the validation of these results will require completing the corpus with source English and Polish texts and their translations in the other two languages.

“Kopulalos und kopulahaft: ein Japanisch-Deutsch-Vergleich” by Akio Ogawa (Chapter Four) is devoted to the phenomenon of copular “be” omission in Japanese. For both Japanese and German, the copula is claimed to express existence (X exists with Y), but the two languages are contrasted along the lines of topic-prominence (positive for Japanese) and subject-prominence (characteristic of German). The author observes an interesting relationship between topic-prominence and the dominance of copula-less clauses, a possible explanation being that sentences in topic-based languages have more affinity to express static events than dynamic ones.


The volume reviewed offers both discussions of basic issues related to the diachronic and synchronic status, semantics and function of “be”-verbs and analyses of (language-) specific constructions with “be” in auxiliary, modal or link verb function. The effort of the editors to compile the volume not as a collection of separate conference papers but as a methodologically consistent whole made up of interconnected subparts has, I believe, been largely successful. As some of the methodological principles and findings are at variance with my own experience and findings in the field of the contrastive corpus-based study of English be and have and their functional equivalents in Bulgarian (Cf. Stambolieva 1987, 1988, 1989, 1998 and others), I will permit myself a few remarks on the more general issues.

1. No serious attempt has been made, by any of the contributors, to semantically characterise to be and its functional equivalents in the other languages of the volume in copular function – they are, simply, classed as units devoid of any semantic content. My own research has, however, clearly demonstrated that English to be and Bulgarian sam form clear semantic oppositions with other link verbs for [+/- Change of State] (get, become, stana, ostana etc.), for [+/- Subjective State] (seem, appear, look, izglejdam, etc.) or with have/imam for the opposition centripetal/centrifugal – in both personal and impersonal sentences. Needless, I hope, to remind that unmarkedness is not emptiness.

2. The “empty be” thesis dominating in the analysis of the link verb is too easily extended to align link verbs with auxiliaries. While link verbs can be analysed as semantically autonomous constituents of the verbs phrase, auxiliary verbs are elements of analytical grammatical markers of verbs. Historically, auxiliaries are indeed related to link or full verbs but that does not determine their function and status in the synchronic state of a language system. ‘To be + non-finite verbal form’ constructions have undergone, in many languages, a process of grammaticalisation, as a result of which word combinations have turned into analytical word forms with discontinuous markers of grammatical categories.

3. Because Slavonic languages of different groups display considerable variation in structure, one should be careful with generalisations. Thus, when speaking of “Slavonic” traits such as copular verb omission or deficiency of tense/correlation markers, it is not to be forgotten that they only hold for part of the language family, certainly not for languages of the South Slavonic group. Within the Slavonic group, the contrast of systems displaying, on the one hand, a full inventory of verbal categories and the impossibility for copular verb omission and, on the other, general weakness of the verbal system and omission of the copular verb, might in fact be indicative of a relation between these two structural traits.

The volume reviewed is a well-organised and coherent unity of excellent quality contributions offering a considerable variety of perspectives on “be”-verbs in a large number of languages. It contains an abundance of data and valuable analyses and will prove a very useful addition to any book collection specialising in the field of general and contrastive linguistics.


''Context in Translation''. Proceedings of the Third European Seminar ''Translation Equivalence''. Montecatini Terme, Italy, October 16-18 1997. The TELRI Association. Institut fur deutsche Sprache, Mannheim & The Tuscan Word Centre, 1998, pp. 197-204.

''On the Semantics of Empty Verbs''. European Journal of Semiotic Studies 2, 1989.

''English Impersonal Sentences of the IT IS Y and THERE IS X types and their Bulgarian equivalents''. Yearbook of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Faculty of Classical and Modern Languages, Sofia,1988 , vol.78, 1984, pp. 117-159.

TO BE and СЪМ in the Structure of English and Bulgarian – PhD thesis, Department of English Studies, Sofia University “St, Kliment Ohridski” 1987.
Associate Professor Dr. Maria Stambolieva is Head of Studies for the BA, MA and doctoral programs of the departments of English and American Studies and Romance and Germanic Languages of New Bulgarian University, Sofia, and Head of the Laboratory for Language Technologies of the University. Her research is in the field of general, (corpus-based) contrastive and computational linguistics. She is the author/editor of five books, over 80 research articles, self-study coursebooks and textbooks for learners of English and has directed or been a member of a large number of national and international research projects.

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