Chinese (I've only had experience with Mandarin so far) has at least one or two equivalents to English to be, such as "在" (zài) and "是" (shì).

Now I know that Chinese adjectives are actually verbs so are often described as having to be "built in".

Yet I am told that sentences such as "我好" (Wǒ hǎo) are not right and instead we should say something like "我很好" (Wǒ hěn hǎo) where "很" (hěn) means literally "very" but in these constructions it loses that meaning and the sentence means only "I am good" rather than the literal "I am very good".

I'm assuming that "很" (hěn) is not the only word that can be used in a similar way. Is this construction usually analysed as some kind of copula? And does it imply that copula is more of an open category in Mandarin than in English? Is this common in other language families?

Meaning of copula / copular.

It seems that as an untrained "armchair" linguist my concept of "copula" might not accord with that held generally. Let me sketch out my current notion of "copula":

"Copula" and "copular" are abstract terms to refer to ways of linking mainly nominals. In theory they could refer to words or terms but perhaps also to syntactic structures involving particles or just word order. In practice in Western European languages and in languages with traditional analyses influenced by Western European linguistics they may usually pattern with verbs.

I specifically ceased to think of copula as necessarily a type of verb but as an independent concept. I thought this was in line with current linguistics, but perhaps I've abstracted my concept of copula more than is usual among real linguists?

  • Why do you insist that there be a "copula"? English be is always an auxiliary in one of many constructions; there is no special category of "copula" in English. My experience with isolating languages like Indonesian is that it's much more natural to use adjectival and nominal predicates directly without any tense-catching be analog, and that's certainly the way Bahasa does it. A word for "be" can be manufactured on request, but a word for anything can be manufactured on request. – jlawler Nov 23 '13 at 16:41
  • Where am I insisting? I am asking. Are you saying the concept of copula does not exist? Or does not exist in English? Sorry but I'm a bit confused. I've been thinking about this for a while but reading this other question about copulae just now reminded me to go ahead and post it. – hippietrail Nov 23 '13 at 16:51
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    Actually I was just trying to be open to the possibility that if there are copulas there could be copulas totally different to what we're used to in English or in Western languages. – hippietrail Nov 23 '13 at 18:21
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    Cool. The thing is that old terms get crusted with all kinds of silly ideas when they show up presupposed like that. Good new question. – jlawler Nov 23 '13 at 18:29
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    Yes "da" is the "plain form" of "desu". It fits the traditional notion of copula in that it patterns like a verb for inflection but is very different in other respects from normal Japanese verbs. It is usually cited as one of the very few irregular Japanese verbs. It is also very commonly (perhaps not always though) referred to as a/the copula. The exotic Japanese copular construction I was thinking of involved "no" and other particles and not "da"/"desu". – hippietrail Nov 24 '13 at 2:19

Leaving the broader question about copulas to one side here. Po and Rimmington’s ‘Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar’ (Routledge) has a good explanation for why ‘我好’ is not a well-formed answer to ‘你好嗎?’ (which I’m guessing is the context.) Having the predicative adjective unmarked implies a contrast, ‘I’m good (but not him!)’. A degree adverb like 很 is needed to get a neutral reading. P and R further remark that ‘in fact the degree adverb很 hen3 ‘very’, unless it is emphasized, does not really mean ‘very’, and its integration into an adjectival predicative is more often than not to counteract an implication of contrast.’ (p.60) Still, many other adverbs would work in this slot, for example 非常 fei1chang2, an unambiguous ‘very’.

Some additional points that could suggest that 很 is not a copula:

  1. Statements like N 很 Adj can be reformulated with a degree complement, so that 很 is not in copula position:

    那個書好得很 ‘That book is very good.’

  2. When negated with 不, 很 isn’t needed, i.e. 他不好 is well-formed, although 不太好 ‘not so good’, adding a different degree adjective, is common.

  3. Another predicate structure can also occur with some adjectives (generally ones that are non-gradable): ‘是…的’. A few adjectives can appear in predicates with either structure:

他的話很對 or 他的話是對的 ‘What he says is correct.’

Other things like the number of syllables will affect how Mandarin adjectives behave in collocations and as predicates. P and R discuss a number of distinctions that affect how adjectives are used syntactically – qualifiers vs. quantifiers, gradable vs. non-gradable, derogatory vs. commendatory etc. Introducing the notion of ‘copula’ into this would probably just confuse things, I suspect.

By the way, in Classical Chinese 是 meant ‘this’. Thus its use as a copula in Mandarin is a case of grammaticalization, although according to P and R this is only one of its many uses. Cantonese uses 係 (pronounced haih, the Mandarin reading would be xi4) as a copula in sentences like 我係美國人 ‘I am an American.’ I would be interested to know in what ways the usage of Cantonese 係 parallels that of Mandarin是 and where usage differs.

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