No copula…

Two of my favourite languages do not have copula; at least not in the sense that we know it in English.

What’s a copula? Well, (and I just recently realized the connection to the word ‘copulate’; a very good way to remember it!), it’s a word that connects a subject and complement (whatever that is). In English, it’s forms of ‘to be’: am, is, are, was, etc.

So, you may wonder how does it work? Actually, it’s pretty easy. In Hebrew:

אני ג׳מיקני
Ani Jamaikani
(am) Jamaican

I don’t have a webcam, so this representation of Jamaican Sign Language will have to do for now:

I (am) Jamaican

The adjacent words are enough to portray the fact that one is the other. For Deaf, my JSL teacher once said, it’s difficult to understand the concept of ‘there is’; because for them, that concept is expressed innately in  how they set up a sentence, without the need of a separate word.

It’s interesting that in Hebrew, this means that a sentence can be translated two different ways since adjectives go after the noun:

זה ספר ירוק
Ze sefer yarok
This (is) a green book
This book (is) green

My Israeli friend once told me that in Modern Hebrew, there is some sort of copular function, though. This same word ‘ze’:

התמונה זו שלי
Ha-t’monah zot sheli
Literally: The picture this mine
Translation: That picture is mine

(Although strictly speaking, that modifies the sentence to mean “that picture”… I’ll think about this more…) And then, there’s also the use of the relevant pronouns as copular words. I see it in Hebrew Wikipedia articles all the time. That’s actually how I figure out whether a noun is masculine or feminine in Hebrew sometimes. For example (from the Hebrew article about matza on Wikipedia):

מַצָּה היא מאפה
Matza hi ma’afe
Literally: Matza she/it pastry
Translation: Matza is a patry

My Hebrew friend said (about the use of ze/זה):

This is actually due to English influence on Hebrew from the early 20th century when the Brits ruled over this area. The Hebrew speakers felt something was missing in their language, in comparison to the English “am / is / are”, so started sticking זה in its stead.

JSL actually uses the word WHAT in a seemingly copular way, too; and pronouns as well.

So.. I wonder if the tendency is to fill the ‘gap’ with a copula. Hmm….


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