Tag Archives: copula

“To be, or not to be …”

Quoth Peter Bleackley on Twitter:

See the message on Twitter.

Indeed, besides Peter’s joke (that took me a while to recognize …), it would be interesting to compare how various languages with a zero copula translate Shakespeare’s probably most famous line (yellow marking mine):

To be, or not to be, that is the queſtion
“To be, or not to be, that is the queſtion” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.1 — Shakespeare Quartos Archive, CC-BY-NC; original image cropped and yellow marking added)

Since Ayeri is a language with a zero copula – that is, the copula, “be,” does not have a phonetic realization – I was wondering how to translate this quotation. However, I would rather expect from context that the way “be” is used in English here refers to existence: the verb “be” is used as a full, content verb rather than the copula as a function. That is, the way Hamlet uses “be” does not suggest that he is assigning a quality to the subject, as in “The king is dead,” or “I am suicidal.”

In spite of possessing a zero copula, Ayeri nonetheless has an overt verb for “be” in the meaning of ‘exist’: yoma-. However, what Ayeri still lacks is a proper infinitive – the only non-finite form there is, is the participle, but you can’t usually use this as a nouny standalone thing as in English.1 A possible solution to this problem is to use the noun, yomān ‘existence’. This raises another question, though: how do you negate that, that is, what do you get for ‘inexistence’? Searching the dictionary for nouns in in-/ir-/il-, dis-, un- doesn’t reveal any obviously negated nouns.2

Besides verbs, the only other category that can be negated are adjectives, which are rather noun-like in Ayeri. Adjectives may be negated by -oy and -arya (which has a variety of allomorphs), and since the negation of ‘existence’ we need here is categorical rather than transitory, I would choose -arya. This results in yomāryān as a possible negation:



On the other hand, since yomān is already derived from a verb and verbs get negated with -oy, another possible derivation could be yomoyan:3



I think the latter case is more succinct, so I’d translate the famous line from Hamlet as:

Yomān soyang yomoyan – adareng prantānley.

‘Existence or inexistence, that is the question.’

Note that in the first half of the sentence, the nouns are not case marked. I chose not to mark them for case since as far as I can tell, they do not fit into the case frame of any verb here, besides the fact that the sentence above does not include any overt verb.

Of course, using less enigmatic language while it still being a bit of a pun, I could also simply translate:

Ten soyang tenyan – adareng prantānley.

‘Life or death – that is the question.’

But that would’ve been boring.

  • Shakespeare, William. The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. London, 1604. [​27.] The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke: An Electronic Edition. The Shakespeare Quartos Archive. Shakespeare Quartos Archive. Mar. 2009. Web. 8 May 2013. ‹http://www.quartos.org›. (The image the presented excerpt is taken from was published under CC-BY-NC; original image cropped and yellow marking added.)
  • David J. Peterson informs that the “[u]sual route is ‘to live or not to live’.” Phrasing it exactly that way doesn’t work in Ayeri either, though.
  1. I’m not sure if there’s something in the Grammar about this. If the Grammar allows participles to stand on their own, my usage has changed meanwhile.
  2. A possible candidate would be tenyan ‘death’, though, since ‘life’ is ten‘; -ya is one of the allomorphs of -arya (cf. below). Ayeri quite loves -ya as a morpheme!
  3. With the transitory adjective negation -oy, the outcome would indeed have been the same, so it really doesn’t matter here.

A Likely Translation Challenge

This is a cross-posting from the ZBB, as a note-to-self kind of thing.

Yāng minjisānas nilay.

‘He is a/the likely candidate.’
Yāng nilay minjisānas.

‘He likely is/will likely be a/the candidate.’

Neat-o. Except I need an easier word for “candidate”…

What do we see here? Well, we see difference in meaning through word order in action:

  1. Modifiers mostly follow their heads, so in the first case, where “likely” modifies the “candidate”, nilay follows accordingly.
  2. The second case is a little trickier, and I’m not quite sure about it. Ayeri has a zero copula which I’ve so far glossed as “Ø/COP” at the beginning of sentences, since this is the place verbs usually appear in. However, in the second example above I have what’s technically an adverb follow the agent NP. There are languages that use personal pronouns as copulas actually, e.g. Hebrew (cf. Payne 117), so could we argue here that yāng fulfills the role of the copula here? This demands further investigation!
  • Payne, Thomas E. Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. Print.
  • Prmysl. “TC: Likely.” Zompist BBoard. 6 Jun. 2011. Mark Rosenfelder, 2002. Web. 6 Jun. 2011.