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There is a property of languages with respect to copula (a verb 'to be' to mark equivalent thing): the copula may be necessary, or prohibited (and more complex mixtures of necessary and prohibited.

For example, English requires a copula:

He is a doctor (you can't take a way the 'is')

In Russian, 'is' is not allowed (but it is necessary in the past):

On vrach. ('he doctor'..)

Is this property an accepted primary parameter of language (like pro-drop, or head direction) that is, a property that is correlated with other properties? Or is it associated secondarily with one of the more common parameters?

  • Your Russian example is wrong. It should be "Jemu horosho" (ему хорошо). he.DAT good 'he feels good'If you meant to say "he is a good person," then it should be "on horoshij chelovek" he.NOM good.M person – Alex B. Feb 20 '12 at 3:32
  • @Alex: your second example fits with my other examples. Fixed. Maybe the adjective standing in for a noun is one of the related properties? – Mitch Feb 20 '12 at 4:20
  • @AlexB. Wow you're right. I didn't really notice that. – Alenanno Feb 20 '12 at 7:16
  • There are forms of copula which are not verbs by the way. Japanese has both a verb and "something else" which seems to be a syntactic structure I don't understand. Georgian has both a verb and an enclitic. – hippietrail Feb 20 '12 at 13:51
  • @hippietrail As far as I know, Japanese has only the copula です/だ (desu, polite; da, casual), which is not a verb "to be" but it's also used as such. – Alenanno Feb 20 '12 at 14:47
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WALS has "Zero copula for predicate nominals" as feature 120A and explicitly treats it as a parameter. The chapter has a thorough discussion on the subject.

In particular it talks about different types of copulas, including verbal (e.g. English), pronominal (e.g. Hebrew), and particle (e.g. Kabyle) copulas.

It also points out that zero copula forms a continuum, and not merely a binary parameter. E.g. in English, a zero copula is never allowed; in Sinhalese a zero copula is mandatory1; but in Russian a zero copula is used in the present ('она врач') but not the past ('она была врачом').

Edit: It appears that Strasser (1994) — the author of the WALS chapter — did an extensive study on zero copulas and their association with various parameters (such as Tensedness), it's just not discussed in the short WALS chapter.


1: Note that WALS refers to languages like Sinhalese, where the zero copula is compulsory, as 'zero copula possible': «only languages of the English type have been rated as type 1. In other words, a language is considered to be a member of type 2 if it allows the use of a zero copula, however minimal...»

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    Many Slavic languages use the instrumental for a predicate noun; e.g. Polish Jestem lekarzem "I am a doctor". – Mark Beadles Feb 21 '12 at 12:44
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    @MarkBeadles Do you mind using the @ ? Otherwise I don't know if you reply. :D Anyway, in my opinion there is a difference between "possible" and "mandatory". In the former case, it can occur (or not), in the latter it always occurs. It would be more precise to write that, rather than mandatory. But apart from this, I like your answer. – Alenanno Feb 21 '12 at 12:47
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    @MarkBeadles Thanks! I slightly fixed some formatting in your footnote. +1 from me! – Alenanno Feb 21 '12 at 16:12
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    The Strasser reference seems to say that, though it is associated with other parameters...it is complicated. That is I think the explanation is complicated, not that necessarily it is complicated. – Mitch Feb 22 '12 at 19:39
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    I think there's an issue of terminology; the contributions to WALS are all from outside the Chomskyan framework, so if the word "parameter" gets mentioned in a WALS chapter (as with chapter 120), it should not be understood in quite the same sense as "Parameter" when used by linguists from the Principles and Parameters framework. There is, for example, no WALS map plotting the "head directionality" Parameter setting for different languages, but there are instead a large number of chapters on general word order patterns. – user483 Feb 22 '12 at 19:51

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