Copular sentences (sentences of the form A is B) have been prominent on the research agenda for linguists and philosophers of language since classical antiquity, and continue to be shrouded in considerable controversy. Central questions in the linguistic literature on copulas and copular sentences are (a) whether predicational, specificational, identificational, and equative copular sentences have a common underlying source; and, if so, (b) how the various surface types of copular sentences are derived from that underlier; (c) whether there is a typology of copulas; and (d) whether copulas are meaningful or meaningless. The debate surrounding the postulation of multiple copular sentence types relies on criteria related to both meaning and form. Analyses based on meaning tend to focus on the question of whether or not one of the terms is a predicate of the other, whether or not the copula contributes meaning, and the information-structural properties of the construction. Analyses based on form focus on the flexibility of the linear ordering of the two terms of the construction, the surface distribution of the copular element, the restrictions imposed on the extraction of the two terms, the case and agreement properties of the construction, the omissibility of the copula or one of the two terms, and the connectivity effects exhibited by the construction. Morphosyntactic variation in the domain of copular elements is an area of research with fruitful intersections between typological and generative approaches. A variety of criteria are presented in the literature to justify the postulation of multiple copulas or underlying representations for copular sentences. Another prolific body of research concerns the semantics of copular sentences. In the assessment of scholarship on copulas and copular sentences, the article critiques the ‘multiple copulas’ approach and examines ways in which the surface variety of copular sentence types can be accounted for in a ‘single copula’ analysis. The analysis of copular constructions continues to have far-reaching consequences in the context of linguistic theory construction, particularly the question of how a predicate combines with its subject in syntactic structure.
Marcel den Dikken and Teresa O’Neill
Definition of the copula as a discrete grammatical category is problematic. It is the semantically unmarked copulas (simple equivalents of the English verb ‘to be’) which deserve most attention in a comparison of the Romance languages; they have a typically suppletive historical morphology and are often the result of the grammaticalization of full lexical verbs, the point at which true unmarked copular status is achieved being sometimes difficult to identify. The unmarked copulas of the Ibero-Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan) have the most complex distribution and have proved the most difficult to account for synchronically. The situation in the early 21st century is the consequence of a progressive encroachment of the reflexes of Latin stare and other verbs on the functions of Latin esse (reference is made to the Classical Latin form esse for convenience; however, the Romance paradigms must be taken to derive from a Vulgar Latin form *essĕre, into which other verbs, notably sedēre ‘to sit’ in the case of the Ibero-Romance languages, were suppletively incorporated). The contrastive study of the development of cognate copular verbs in closely related languages needs closer attention in regard to the identification of the parameters of copula choice with adjectival complements.
Existential and locative constructions form an interesting cluster of copular structures in Romance. They are clearly related, and yet there are theoretical reasons to keep them apart. In-depth analysis of the Romance languages lends empirical support to their differentiation. In semantic terms, existentials express propositions about existence or presence in an implicit contextual domain, whereas locatives express propositions about the location of an entity. In terms of information structure, existentials are typically all new or broad focus constructions. Locatives are normally characterized by focus on the location, although this can also be a presupposed topic. Romance existentials are formed with a copula and a postcopular phrase (the pivot). A wide range of variation is found in copula selection, copula-pivot agreement, expletive subjects, the presence and function of an etymologically locative precopular proform, and, finally, the categorial status of the pivot, which is normally a noun phrase, but can also be an adjective (Calabrian, Sicilian). As for Romance locatives, a distinction must be drawn between, on the one hand, a construction with canonical SV order and S-V agreement and, on the other hand, another construction, with VS order and, in some languages, lack of V-S agreement. This latter structure has been named inverse locative. Both existentials and locatives have a nonverbal predicate: the locative phrase in locatives and the postcopular noun or adjectival phrase in existentials. In locatives the predicate selects a thematic argument (i.e., an argument endowed with a thematic role), which serves as the syntactic subject, exception being made for inverse locatives in some languages. Contrastingly, in existentials, there is no thematic argument. In some languages the copula turns to the pivot for agreement, as this is the only overt noun phrase endowed with person and number features (Italian, Friulian, Romanian, etc.). In other languages this non-canonical agreement is not licensed (French, some Calabrian dialects, Brazilian Portuguese, etc.). In others still (Spanish, Sardinian, European Portuguese, Catalan, Gallo-Italian, etc.), it is only admitted with pivot classes that can be defined in terms of specificity. When the copula does not agree with the pivot, an expletive subject form may figure in precopular position. The cross-linguistic variation in copula-pivot agreement has been claimed to depend on language-specific constraints on subjecthood. Highly specific pivots are only admitted in contextualized existentials, which express a proposition about the presence of an individual or an entity in a given and salient context. These existentials are found in all the Romance languages and would seem to defy the semantico-pragmatic constraints on the pivot that are widely known as Definiteness Effects.