Alice and the invariant predicational copula

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After several days, I'm still thinking about the very funny Dilbert strip of September 1, at, which made me laugh out loud. Alice is asked by her boss to simplify the wording on a slide so that it can be explained to the company's executives. She does not suffer fools gladly and her immediate suggestion for the simplified wording is: "MONEY BE GOOD. THIS MAKE MORE. OOGAH!". What I'm thinking about is the nature of the stereotype Alice has concerning the sort of language that would be understandable to people like company executives who are (in Alice's jaundiced opinion) virtually brainless.

I don't know where "oogah" comes from originally, but it is standard-issue stereotype for jungle-tribe chanting. Alice is portraying the executives as some sort of dull-witted primitive tribe whose members can barely make sentences — people whose low intelligence and cultural attainments might suggest they were raised by apes rather than humans.

Alice's intuition about the syntax such people would use tells her to drop tense inflection. But what I've been thinking about is whether her intuition was right when she included an uninflected copula.

Tarzan, who actually was raised by apes, does not use a copula, at least with predicative proper nouns: his standard stereotyped utterance is Me Tarzan, you Jane (I don't know if that exact line ever occurred in the movies; you'll recall that Sherlock Holmes is widely regarded as having "Elementary, my dear Watson" as his most characteristic utterance, but that line never occurs in the Holmesian canon). It isn't *Me be Tarzan, you be Jane.

Alice could have said "Money good. This make more." But she includes the copular verb be in its plain form. My substantive question for linguists who know more languages than I do is this: are there any languages that use a copular for adjectival predication (as in English Money is good) where the copula is invariant in form, with no inflectional forms for tense, aspect, mood, or negation?

Notice that I'm referring to the copula used for adjectival predication. The be of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is uninflectable, but is not for adjectival predication. It is a habitual aspect marker: He be laughin' doesn't mean "He is laughing", it means "He habitually or characteristically laughs (or laughed)". It is not used with adjectives. The meaning "He is crazy" is expressed by He crazy. If He be crazy were to occur, my understanding is that it would mean "He habitually acts in a crazy way" or "He habitually exhibits symptoms of derangement". (And anyway, in 1st person singular present, past tense, and negated clauses, AAVE does have a copula, and it is not fixed in one form.) If Alice's attempt at an insulting linguistics stereotype is supposed to be based on AAVE, she doesn't know anything about AAVE (which wouldn't be surprising, of course: William Raspberry knows nothing about AAVE, despite being a black resident of the Washington DC area).

My initial hunch is that there shouldn't be any languages with an invariant-form syntactically required but semantically inert verb merely for marking adjectival predication. It seems superfluous. But human languages are strange and diverse, and I've been wrong before; it wouldn't surprise me to find that my intuition is completely wrong. Write to if you know a language in which "Money is good" is expressed by three words: a noun meaning "money", an adjective meaning "good", and a completely uninflectable and meaningless third word that is grammatically required. I'll post an update here if anyone comes up with such a language.

UPDATE, 9 September 2011:
Here's the news on the languages proposed so far.

Karl Narveson reports that Chimwiini (a dialect of Swahili spoken in Somalia, Ethnologue code SWH) has an invariant copular element ndi in sentences like Mwana ndi chuma "A child is a treasure. Sentences with ndi are strikingly different from most sentences of the language because they don't have a verb that inflects with subject agreement.

Dan Lufkin reckons that in Papiamentu (a creole language of the Dutch Antilles, Ethnologue code PAP) the form ta is an invariant copula.

Thomas Grano and Marc Hamann both say that in Mandarin Chinese (Ethnologue code CMN) the word hěn, though it used to be an intensifier meaning "very", is now a grammatically required invariant particle in adjectival predications like Zhangsan hěn gao "Zhangsan is tall".

And Lameen Souag reports that Kabyle (a Berber language, Ethnologue code KAB) has a copula-like particle d that is used with at least some adjectives: d lɛali zzehr-im means "Its water is good" (lɛali means "good": this language has the predicate before the subject).

I didn't count the people who wrote to suggest Japanese: although kane ga ii "Money is good" has an invariant element ga, it couldn't be said to be analogous to a copula: it's a postposition for subjects that would appear in lots of sentences — transitive clauses included — that have no predicative adjective.

Many thanks to all the linguists who wrote in.

[Comments be closed. Oogah.]

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