Treading the Territories of Copulas

There is a rich array of languages that have one or several copulas. For example, languages such as English (Germanic), Russian (Slavic), Hindi (Indo-Aryan), and Tamil (Dravidian) utilize a wide variety of copulas and semi-copulas.

What is a copula? A copula, simply put, is a word or phrase that joins a subject to a predicate, which could be a nominal, adjectival or verbal phrase. Copulas are unique in that they not only provide a link between a subject and predicate of a clause, but in many languages, they can also act as carriers of tense-aspect-mood (TAM) and agreement (AGR) markers. For example, in English, the sentence The book is on the table, the copula is further indicates that the subject (the book) is a third person singular referent and the whole proposition is anchored in the present tense.

In Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, copulas can help modulate speaker stance, often in interesting and intricate ways. For example, in the Hindi sentence

woh ghar-pe thaa (‘He was home’), the copula thaa can be preposed from utterance-final position to either preverbal or utterance-initial position to yield different focus (i.e., highlighting) effects, as shown in (1) and (2) respectively:

  • woh thaa ghar-pe (‘It was he who was home.’)
  • thaa woh ghar-pe (‘It’s that he was home.’)

Unlike English, Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi can prepose the copula without recourse to a dummy subject such as it.

An interesting question is how copulas can help convey speaker stance. This question is addressed by Prof. Foong Ha Yap from the School of Humanities and Social Science, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China, and Prof. Anindita Sahoo from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai, India, using data from Odia, an eastern Indo-Aryan language.

Odia is spoken primarily in the state of Odisha in India, and has more than 46 million speakers as of 2023. It is also spoken in other Indian states such as West Bengal, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh. Odia is recognized as the sixth classical language of India and is believed to be 2000 years old. In this study, ten hours of natural conversation between Odia-speaking friends and family members were recorded with their consent. The conversations were audio-recorded in the Balasore, Bhadrak, and Mayurbhanj districts of Odisha, as well as in Chennai and New Delhi. The data from Odisha were collected in March 2017, those from Chennai in November 2018, and those from New Delhi during both periods. These conversations were transcribed, anonymized, and compiled into five transcription files.

Unlike Hindi, Odia is not gender-sensitive. Therefore, whereas Hindi includes all four agreement features (person, number, gender, and honorificity status), Odia lacks gender marking on the copulas. Further, it has been observed that copulas in Odia, like in many other Indian languages, can be found in nominal, adjectival, and verbal predicates. Examples of these three types of predicates are shown in (3a-c) respectively with thile as the copula for a third person singular non-honorific referent (indicated by agreement marker -e) in past tense contexts (indicated by suffix -l):

(3) a.   se mo shikhyaka thi-l-e.          ‘He/She was my teacher.’

            b.   se bahut dayaaLu thi-l-e.       ‘He/She was very kind.’

            c.    se sata kahu thi-l-e.                 ‘He/She was telling the truth.’

In Odia, copulas are mandatory in past and future tense contexts for all three types of predicates. In the present tense, there are two forms of copulas: aT- and achh-. Copula aT- (e.g, the honorific aTanti) can be found in nominal predicates in the formal register, but is usually omitted in conversational speech. Copula achh is never used in nominal predicates. In adjectival predicates, aT can be used in both formal and conversational speech, while achh occurs only in conversational speech. In verbal predicates, copula aT is never used, while copula achh can be deployed as an auxiliary to form complex predicates. It is possible that the present tense suffix chh may be a phonologically reduced form of copula achh-. Examples with aTantiand achhantifor singular third person honorific referents in formal and casual conversational contexts are shown in (4a-d) below:

(4) a.   se mo shikhyaka  aT-anti.                  ‘He/She is my teacher.’

b.   se bahut dayaaLu aT-anti.                ‘He/She is very kind.’

c.   se sata kah-u  achh-anti.                   ‘He/She is telling the truth.’

d.   se mote saahaajya kar-u-chh-anti.    ‘He/She is helping me.’

As seen in (4a-b), copulas function as linking verbs that host tense-mood and agreement markers but they do not host aspect markers. They are also used with high frequency as auxiliaries that contribute to more subtle tense-mood readings. For example, as seen in (4c-d), while the verbs host aspect markers such as imperfective suffix -u, copula auxiliaries help to host the rest of the verbal morphology (i.e., the tense-mood and agreement markers), and their combined effort can give rise to progressive readings. As illustrated in (5) below, when the verbs host perfective aspect marker -i, in combination with the copula along with its tense-mood and agreement markers, we obtain a perfect tense construction.    

(5) semaane du jaNa pilaa-n-ku bi pachaar-i thi-l-e.

            ‘They (=the teachers) had also asked the two children (questions).’

In (5) above, the verbpachaar (‘ask’) carries suffix -ito yield a perfective aspect reading. Additional deployment of the past tense copula auxiliary thile further yields a past perfect pachaari thile (‘had asked’) construction. Compared to a simple past construction such as pachaarile, which only conveys temporal information (in this case, locating an event as having happened in the past), deployment of copula auxiliary thile helps to further focus on the relevance of the event. For example, the teachers asking the two children questions is consequential to yet another event or situation that is being mentioned or implied in the ongoing conversation.

Another major function of copulas in Odia is that they can be used as a linking verb or auxiliary verb to express speaker stance through agreement markers. For example, in (6) below, the speaker is identifying a famous professor. She uses a copula with a high honorificity status marker, namely, achhanti, to express her admiration of this highly:

(6) aamara jaNe bahuta baDa celebrity professor achh-anti.

            ‘We have a very big celebrity professor.’

In this paper, the basic and extended functions of copulas in Odia have been identified. The authors’ analysis shows that a speaker’s subjective and intersubjective stances can be realized through the tense-mood and assertion marking functions of the copula. In addition, their findings also show that the speaker’s interpersonal relationship with the addressee(s), as well as others, can be realized through the agreement markers hosted by the copula, and speakers can also emphasize particular viewpoints through variations in focus marking when the copula is preposed along with its tense-mood and agreement markers.

The findings of this study contribute to the understanding of the relationship between copulas and stance-taking/stance-marking in spontaneous conversations in Indo-Aryan languages, and potentially other languages as well. Further research needs to be done to better understand the range of strategies by which copula and non-copula languages develop and deploy grammatical markers for temporal reference and person identification, and potentially also for the expression of speaker stance and the management of interpersonal relations in conversational discourse. The authors hope that these findings can spur further research into the typology of copula uses in Indo-Aryan languages as well as other languages with copula constructions.

Prof. Shruti Sircar from the Department of Linguistics and Contemporary English, English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, Telangana State, India, gave the following appreciative and detailed comments on the authors’ paper: “Copulas and copular clauses are one of the areas of grammar with the greatest degree of variation attested. They vary both in forms, as they surface under different categories (verbs, prepositions, pronouns) and head different functional elements (T, Pred, C); and in behaviour, since they participate in a diversity of agreement patterns. For this reason, copulas and copular constructions become a privileged and sought after ground to explore essential theoretical issues concerning categorization, and offer an unparalleled window into the study of the innermost mechanisms and properties of human language. Since the cross-linguistic diversity in copulas is vast, we need data from languages across the world, which the theoretical accounts need to embrace acute subtlety to capture all the nuances.

The paper ‘Versatile copulas and their stance-marking uses in conversational Odia, an Indo-Aryan language’ by Dr. Foong Ha Yap and Dr. Anindita Sahoo is a significant step in this direction since it brings in a new dimension to looking at copula using empirical data from a lesser studied language, Odia: data from which will enrich the way we look at and describe copula cross-linguistically. The paper shows how the copulas carry the intersubjective interactive stances and the speaker attitudinal stances, which are a step ahead of the well-known tense-aspect-mood and agreement bearing properties of copula. The main contribution of the paper is the clean and skilful teasing out of the stances that are realized through the various forms that copula may take in Odia: (a) epistemic stance through future tense-mood marking on the copulas (b) interpersonal stance through agreement marking on the copulas; and (c) emphatic stance that is expressed by preposing the copula as a focus marker. The paper is a significant contribution to our understanding of copula in Odia, and the various functions that copula discharge in different languages.”

Article by Akshay Anantharaman
Click here for the original link to the paper


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