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Zero copula is a linguistic phenomenon whereby the subject is joined to the predicate without overt marking of this relationship (like the copula 'to be' in English). One can distinguish languages that simply do not have a copula and languages that have a copula that is optional in some contexts.
Standard English exhibits a very limited form of the zero copula, common in statements like "The higher, the better"; "The more, the merrier". Statements with this structure are known formally as comparative correlative. There is no evidence of a language that lacks this syntactic structure, however neither is it readily apparent how a comparative is joined with its correlate in this kind of copula. Zero copula also appears in casual questions and statements like "You from out of town?"; "Enough already!" where the verb (and more) may be omitted due to syncope. Apart from syncope, the zero copula is probably not used productively in standard English.
The zero copula is far more productive in Caribbean creoles and African American Vernacular English, some varieties of which regularly omit the copula. For instance, "You crazy!", "Where you at?" and "Who she?" As in Russian, this is the case only in the present tense. In past-tense sentences, the copula must be specified. Although these speech patterns have not, as yet, had a significant effect on mainstream English, they are interesting for historical linguists, as they may predict future developments in English grammar.
The zero copula is also present, in a slightly different and more regular form, in the headlines of English newspapers, where short words and articles are generally omitted to conserve space. For example, a headline would more likely say "Gulf coast in ruins" than "Gulf coast is in ruins". Because headlines are generally simple A = B statements, an explicit copula is rarely necessary.
In other languages
Omission frequently depends on the tense and use of the copula.
- Она дома (Ona domа) = She at home, literally "She is now at home, in the house"
- Она была дома (Ona byla domа) = She was at home
The third person plural "суть" (sut’) (are) is still used in some standard phrases, but since it is a homonym of the noun "essence", most native speakers do not notice it to be a verb:
- Они суть одно и то же (Oni sut’ odno i to zhe) — "they are one and the same".
The verb быть (byt’) is the infinitive of "to be". The third person singular, есть (yest’) means "is" (and, interestingly enough, it is a homophone of the infinitive "to eat"). As a copula, it can be inflected into the past (был, byl), future (будет, budet), and subjunctive (был бы, byl by) forms. A present tense (есть, yest’) exists; however, it is almost never used as a copula, but rather omitted altogether or replaced by the verb являться (yavlyat'sa) (to be in essence). Thus one can say:
- Она была красавицей (Ona byla krasavitsej) — "she was a beautiful woman" (adjective in instrumental case).
- Она красавица (Ona krasavitsa) — "she is a beautiful woman" (adjective in the nominative case).
- Она является красавицей (Ona yavlyayetsya krasavitsej) — "she is a beautiful woman" (adjective also in instrumental).
But not usually:
- Она есть красавица (Ona yest’ krasavitsa) — "she is a beautiful woman".
Being an extremely regular agglutinative language, Turkish expresses "to be" not as a regular verb, but as an auxiliary verb denoted as i-mek, which shows its existence only through suffixes to predicates that can be nouns, adjectives or arguably conjugated verb stems. In the third person singular, zero copula is the rule, as in Hungarian or Russian. For example:
Deniz mavi. "[The] sea [is] blue." (the auxiliary verb i-mek is implied only); Ben maviyim. "I am blue." (the auxiliary verb i-mek appears in (y)im.)
The essential copula is possible in third person singular:
Deniz mavidir. "[The] sea is (always, characteristically) blue."
In Tatar, dir expresses doubt rather than a characteristic. The origin of dir is the verb durmak, with a similar meaning to the Latin stare.
In Arabic, the use of the zero copula again depends on the context. In the present tense affirmative, when the subject is definite and the predicate is indefinite, the subject is simply juxtaposed with its predicate. When both the subject and the predicate are definite, a pronoun (agreeing with the subject) must be inserted between the two. For example:
- محمد مهندس (Muḥammad muhandis) = 'Muhammad is an engineer' (lit. 'Muhammad an-engineer')
- محمد هو المهندس (Muḥammad huwa'l-muhandis) = 'Muhammad is the engineer' (lit. 'Muhammad he the-engineer')
The extra pronoun is needed to prevent the adjective qualifying the noun attributively:
- محمد المهندس (Muḥammad al-muhandis) = 'Muhammad the engineer'
In the past tense, however, or in the present tense negative, the verbs kāna and laysa are used, which take the accusative case:
- كان محمد مهندسًا (Kāna Muḥammad muhandisan) = 'Muhammad was an engineer' (kāna = '(he) was') (literally 'he-was Muhammad an-engineer')
- ليس محمد مهندسًا (Laysa Muḥammad muhandisan) = 'Muhammad is not an engineer' (lit. 'he-isn't Muhammad an-engineer'; the -an suffix marks the indefinite accusative)
When the copula is expressed with a verb, no pronoun need be inserted, regardless of the definiteness of the predicate:
- ليس محمد المهندس (Laysa Muḥammad al-muhandis) = 'Muhammad is not the engineer' (lit. 'he-isn't Muhammad the-engineer')
The Ganda verb 'to be', -li, is used in only two cases: when the predicate is a prepositional phrase and when the subject is a pronoun and the predicate is an adjective:
- Ali mulungi 'She is beautiful' (ali = '(he/she) is')
- Kintu ali mu mmotoka 'Kintu is in the car' (literally 'Kintu he-is in-car')
Otherwise, the zero copula is used:
- Omuwala mulungi 'The girl is beautiful' (literally 'the-girl beautiful')
Here the word mulungi 'beautiful' is missing its initial vowel pre-prefix o-. If included, it would make the adjective qualify the noun omuwala attributively:
- Omuwala omulungi 'The beautiful girl' or 'a beautiful girl'
American Sign Language
American Sign Language does not have a copula. For example, my hair is wet is signed 'my hair wet', and my name is Pete may be signed '[name my]TOPIC P-E-T-E'.
The copula is is used in Irish but may be omitted in the present tense. For example, Is fear mór é ("He is a big man") can be expressed as simply Fear mór é. The common phrase Pé scéal é (meaning "anyhow", lit. "Whatever story it [is]") also omits the copula.
The fact that Welsh often requires the use of a predicative particle to denote non-definite predicates means that the copula can be omitted in certain phrases. For example, the phrase Ac yntau'n ddyn byr... ("Since he is/was/etc. a short man...") literally translates as "And he [particle] a short man...". The zero copula is especially common in Welsh poetry of the gogynfardd style.
Grammarians and other comparative linguists, however, do not consider this to constitute a zero copula but rather an affixal copula. Affixal copulae are not unique to Amerindian languages but can be found, for instance, in Korean and in the Eskimo languages.
Many indigenous languages of South America do, however, have true zero copulae in which no overt free or bound morpheme is present when one noun is equated with another.
Some languages can be said to have a zero copula, used in some contexts, which alternates with an overt copula, which is used in other contexts. Other languages lack an overt copula altogether, and no clause could possibly have a copula. In the latter languages, the postulation of a zero copula is empirically problematic, because there is no language-internal evidence for the category copula. According to Occam's razor, the category "copula" must not be postulated then.
Application of the term zero copula to languages entirely lacking the copula is normally done because the translational equivalent would have a copula in English. There is theoretical disagreement on whether this can be considered good practice.
- Wolfram, Walter (1969) A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics p. 165-179