positive and negative existential items

P}l Kristian Eriksen p.k.eriksen at ILF.UIO.NO
Fri Jan 31 16:01:39 UTC 2003

  Dear colleagues.

    Two weeks ago I posted a question on the possible linking between
positive polarity operators and expressions of existence in different
languages. I am very grateful to the answers I received, but before I post
a summary of these answers, I have an additional question to ask.

    It seems that in several languages positive and negative existential
sentences are distinguished from each other in a quite different manner
than other sentences. Turkish will serve as an example:

    In Turkish positive existence is expressed by the so-called
existential adjective "var":

    1) Ev-de  bir  köpek  var
       house-LOC  one  dog  POSEXI
       "There is a dog in the house"

    "Var" behaves morphologically and syntactically like any non-verbal
predicate (and in order to make the example more understandable, it
should be noted that Turkish employs a so-called zero copula construction
in the present tense), but in one respect "var" differs. Whereas ordinary
non-verbal predicates are negated with the particle "degil" (sadly, I have
had to skip a diacritic in this word, and also in the word "cirkin" below),
this operation is ungrammatical for "var". Instead, "var" is substituted
with a negative existential predicate, "yok":

    2) Köpek  cirkin  degil
       Dog  ugly  NEG
       "The dog isn't ugly"

    3) *Ev-de  bir  köpek  var  degil
       House-LOC  one  dog  POSEXI  NEG

    4) Ev-de  bir  köpek  yok
       House-LOC  one  dog  NEGEXI
       "There isn't any dog in the house"

    It should be noted that morphologically "yok" is a root - no
negational sub-segment can be extracted from it. It should furthermore be
noted that this phenomenon is found in present tense, past tense and
conditional sentences in Turkish - but in other tenses and moods a more
"normal" pattern prevails. Positive existence is then mostly expressed
by the copula verb "olmak", and negative existence by ordinary
morphological negation of "olmak".

    This phenomenon - that positive and negative existence is expressed by
two mutually exclusive items, be that adjectives, like here in Turkish, or
verbs, e.g. in Korean, or other types of items - seems to be a relatively
widespread phenomenon. Sometimes it is restricted to certain tenses or
moods, like here in Turkish, while at other times it is found in all
TAM-categories in the language in question.

    Firstly, I would be very happy to receive any kind of example of this
phenomenon from languages you are familiar with. If there are any
restrictions upon the TAM-contexts (or any kind of context) this
phenomenon appears in, please describe these restrictions.

    Secondly, if you are aware of the same type of phenomenon appearing
in ordinary copular sentences - i.e. that the positive copula is
formally unrelated to the negative copula - I would like to be informed
about this as well.

    Thirdly, if there are mutually exclusive existential items in the
languages you are familar with, do copular sentences employ zero
constructions in (any of) the same TAM-contexts as where these
existential items would be used? In other words, if existence in, for
instance, the present tense is expressed by such mutually exclusive
items, do copular sentences employ a zero construction in the same

    Fourthly, if you are aware of other, seemingly unrelated semantical
uses of the items in question, I would be very happy to know, especially
if they are used for emphasis, focus marking, etc..

    Thanks in advance,

    Paal Kr. Eriksen

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