To Be or Not to Be?

Always a tough question for a conlanger. Not existence, of course, but the copula, and how to deal with it.

First, by way of introduction, the copula in English is our friend “to be”. It performs a few different functions, as in the sentences below:

  1. A dog is an animal. (Category Membership)
  2. That is Maria. (Equivalence)
  3. That door is green. (Predication)

Of course, in English, the verb “to be” does a lot of other stuff (e.g. passives), but it’s this basic X = Y relationship that we’re talking about. In English, “to be” does a lot of hard work for us, but other languages do things in different ways—and we don’t have to go too far down the linguistic tree to find differences. In Spanish (and a couple other [but not all] Romance languages), there’s not just one copula, like in English, but two, as shown below:

  1. La casa es sucia. “The house is dirty.”
  2. La casa está sucia. “The house is dirty.”

The sentences above translate the same way, but mean slightly different things. In (5), está is used to indicate that the house is dirty at the moment and could use some cleaning. In (4), on the other hand, es is used to indicate that that house is just a dirty, dirty house. Reminds me of when I used to walk to school past these two houses that my friends and I would call the Clean House and the Dirty House. The contrast was just too stark—and it never changed: the Dirty House was always dirty; the Clean House was always clean. In fact, can we get a shot of those houses, Google Street View?

A picture of two houses I used to walk by.
Click to enlarge.

Ki fin yeni?! Dirty House be clean now! How about that… Must be under new ownership. Trust me, though: the contrast was quite apparent, like…fifteen years ago.

Anyway, the contrast in Spanish is between more or less permanent states and temporary ones (or status vs. state). Other languages draw a distinction between identity constructions and locative constructions (a lot of creole languages do this), or stative predicates (things usually translated by “be + adjective” in English) or other standard copular constructions. That’s not the topic of discussion today. Today I wanted to talk about the form of the copula construction.

As I mentioned, both English and Spanish use verbs. Some languages do it without verbs, though. In Arabic, for example (and also Russian), standard copular expressions are done without any verb at all where one would otherwise expect a verb. Here are some examples from Arabic:

  1. Hiiya taktub. “She’s writing.” (Non-Copular Expression)
  2. Hiiya mutarjim. “She’s a translator.” (Copular Expression)

In (6), the verb taktub is fully conjugated in the third person feminine present tense; in (7), mutarjim simply translates as “translator”. All you need is the two nouns (or pronoun and noun) and that does the job. In the past tense, though…

  1. Hiiya kaanat mutarjiman. “She was a translator.”

…the copula (of the wazan k-w-n) reasserts itself to indicate that the expression is past tense (the object is also marked with the accusative). This also happens in Russian (another well-known zero copula language). Some languages, though, never have a copula in any tense, and simply use the same expression in all contexts.

Dothraki, as has been noted, is a zero copula language, as shown below:

  1. Hazi eshina. “That’s a fish.”

In fact, you can get away with using adjectives predicatively in this way, with a subtle difference in meaning:

  1. Hazi eyelie. “That’s spotted.”
  2. Hazi eyeli. “That’s a spotted one.”

This is kind of a status vs. state distinction, as in Spanish, except that the standard construction in (10) (using the stative verb) can be used for both a state and a status (i.e. for saying something is, at the moment, spotted [say it got splattered with mud], or for saying that something [say, a toad] is spotted all the time), and the latter can only be used with status statements.

Adjectives aside, the main place you see a zero copula expression is in equivalence statements (“He’s a warrior”, “That’s my horse”, “This is the arakh I’m going to cut your tongue out with”, etc.). Outside of the present tense, though, where one would see the reintroduction of a copula in, say, Russian, one sees a change in case in Dothraki. In fact, we can break it down rather simply as follows:

Tense Case Example Translation
Future Allative Me khalaan. He will be khal.
Present Nominative Me khal. He is khal.
Past Ablative Me khaloon. He was/used to be khal.

Seems like a nice neat system, but it didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, this tripartite system derives from an older innovation from when Dothraki was a true zero copula language (and, well, it still is, I suppose, but it started to develop some copula-like constructions).

In the oldest form of the language, as I mentioned before, the word order of Dothraki was VSO. In order to augment the tenseless zero copula, the following expressions were developed:

  1. Ee me khalaan. “He will be khal.” (Lit. “Goes he to khal.”)
  2. Jada me khaloon. “He was/used to be khal.” (Lit. “Comes he from khal.”)

In the modern form of the language when the word order changed, the verbs were simply dropped, since they weren’t necessary to express the content. Even so, these verbs can be reintroduced (in their original verb-initial position) in the modern language if further clarity is demanded.

Today, the two separate systems overlap a little bit. The zero copula expression is still used in tenses other than the present when simple equivalence is desired. That is, if, for example, one was telling a narrative and the context is understood as past, the zero copula expression serves, as shown below (I apologize for the long block of text):

Ma anha dothra Qarthoon heshjim, ma anha arthas lajakasaraan. Mori lajish k’athvezhvenari, vosma anha drozh mora nakhaan. Irge vilajeri, fansa anni laz vos irvoso k’athnithmenari, majin anha fono chiories jimmoon, zhey Fenni. Me koalakeesi.

And all of that was just for the very last sentence. Here’s the translation:

And I rode southwest from Qarth, and I encountered a group of warriors. They fought bravely, but I slew them all. After the battle, my dapple couldn’t trot without pain, so I sought out a woman from the west named Fenni. She was a healer.

Even in English, in fact, you could translate that in the present tense, given the appropriate context (so not in a novel, but if your listener was immediately on hand, “She’s a healer” is fine [or if it’s in the near past and the woman in question is still alive]). In fact, if one were, instead, to say Me koalakeesisoon, it would mean, in that context, she used to be (but no longer is) a healer.

Apart from a context like this, using the ablative can mean “X was Y” without any comment about whether they still are or not, or “X used to be Y”. So a statement like this wouldn’t be a contradiction:

  1. Me koalakeesisoon, vosma me vos koalakeesi ajjin. “She was a healer, but she’s not a healer now.”

That’s about all there is to copulae in Dothraki. If you haven’t got anything else to do, feel free to enjoy this fine song about Hamlet.


  1. Is there a specific reason for why you use the word koalakeesi rather than just koalak? Is there a tradition of using gender specific words like that for females and does that mean the agentive (koalak) is generally seen as a male form? Does this apply to other agentives as well when referring to a woman?

    1. That doesn’t apply generally, but it does apply to koalak. And this, I believe, comes from A Dance with Dragons, if I’m remembering right (it’s described therein that female healers practice different arts from male healers. Pretty sure that’s ADWD).

  2. Also…That’s a new use for the vocative particle “zhey” isn’t it? Because in that example it’s not used in a direct adress. Is it just in that specific use that “zhey” fills the role of “called” or is there more meaning to the word “zhey” than we know so far?

  3. I like it very much, nice neat system for a zero copula. I like the use of allative and ablative the Dothraki has for this sort of things.

    About the “zhey”, it sounds to me as if the use of that was rather colloquial, right? I mean, I could see it working as: “I ran into my friend, Martin, and we got a cup of coffee”, so there “Martin” could be in a vocative.

      1. So does that mean it should be used any time you state someone’s name or epithet or are there time when you say a name etc and not use it?

  4. We need to do a Conlangery episode on copulas and zero-copula structures. I for one have an annoying tendency to simply create a copula verb and be done with it, despite being exposed to such languages as Mandarin (which has a copula for nominal predicates but turns predicate adjectives into stative verbs) and otherwise knowing better.

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