This is not about copula functions in probability and statistics. See copula (statistics).

The word copula originates from the Latin noun for a "link or tie" that connects two different things. In linguistics, a copula is a word that is used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate (a subject complement or an adverbial). Though it might not itself express any action or condition, it serves to equate (or associate) the subject with the predicate.

A copula is sometimes (though not always) a verb or a verb-like part of speech. (in English primary education grammar courses it is often called a linking verb).

The term is generally used to refer to the main copular verb in the language: in the case of English, this is "to be". It can also be used to refer to all such verbs in the language: in that case, English copulas include, "to be", "to become", "to get" and "to seem".


The copula in English


We can identify several sub-uses of the copula:

  • Identity: "I only want to be myself." "When the area behind the dam fills, it will be a lake." "The Morning Star is the Evening Star." "Boys will be boys." "I yam what I yam" (Popeye).
  • Class membership. To belong to a set or class: "She could be married." "Dogs are canines." "Moscow is a large city."
  • Predication (property and relation attribution): "It hurts to be blue." "Will that house be big enough?" "The hen is next to the cockerel." "I am confused." Such attributes may also relate to temporary conditions as well as inherent qualities: "I will be tired after running." "Will you be going to the play tomorrow?" (see below)

The verb "to be" also has some non-copular uses, including:

  • As an auxiliary verb:
    • To form the passive voice: "I was told you wanted to see me"
    • To add continuous aspect to tenses: "It is raining"
  • Meaning "to exist": "I want only to be, and that is enough." "There's no sense in making a scientific inquiry about what species the Loch Ness Monster is, without first establishing that the Loch Ness Monster indeed is."

Note that the auxiliary verb function derives from the copular function; and, depending on one's point of view, one can still interpret the verb as a copula and the following verbal form as being adjectival.


As in most Indo-European languages, the English copula is the most irregular verb, due to constant use. Most English verbs (traditionally known as "weak verbs") have just four separate forms, e.g. "start", "starts", "starting", "started". A large minority of verbs (traditionally known as "strong verbs") have five separate forms, e.g. "begin", "begins", "beginning", "began", "begun". "To be" is a very special case in having eight forms: "be", "am", "is", "are", "being", "was", "were", "been". Traditionally, it had even more, including "art", "wast", "wert", and, occasionally, "best" as a subjunctive. On the history of the paradigm, see: Indo-European copula.

The copula in other languages

Languages tend to use the copula in quite different ways.


In Chinese languages, both states and qualities are generally expressed with stative verbs without a copula, e.g., "to be tired" (累 li), "to be hungry" (饿 ), "to be located at" (在 zi), "to be stupid" (笨 bn) and so forth. These verbs are usually preceded by an adverb such as 很 hěn ("very") or 不 b ("not").

Only sentences with a noun as the complement (e.g. "this is my sister") use the verb "to be": 是 sh. This is used frequently: for example, instead of having a verb meaning "to be Chinese", they say "to be a Chinese person", using 是 sh.

N.B. The transcriptions given in italics reflect standard Mandarin pronunciation and use the Pinyin system.


Japanese has copulas which would most often be translated as one of the so-called be-verbs of English. The Japanese copula has many forms, including but not limited to da, na, de, and desu. The first and last are used to predicate sentences, while the middle two are used within sentences to modify or connect.

Japanese sentences with copulas most often equate one thing with another, that is, they are of the form "A is B." Examples:

  • これはペンです。Kore wa pen desu. "This is a pen" (lit., this TOPIC pen COPULA)
  • 僕は学生だ。Boku wa gakusei da "I am a student" (lit., I-MASCULINE TOPIC student COPULA)

The following examples show the use of the copula as a modifier or connector.

  • 医者のおじ isha no oji "uncle who is a physician" (lit., physician COPULA uncle)
  • 好きでたまらない suki de tamaranai "I love it so much I'm gonna burst" (lit., like COPULA not-be-able-to-bear)

The difference between da and desu is simple: desu is more formal and polite than da. Thus, the two sentences below are identical in meaning and differ only in their politeness.

  • あれはホテルだ。Are wa hoteru da. "That is a hotel." (lit., that TOPIC hotel COPULA)
  • あれはホテルです。Are wa hoteru desu. "That is a hotel." (lit., that TOPIC hotel COPULA)

Japanese sentences may be predicated with copulas or with verbs. However, desu may not always be a predicate. In some cases, its only function is to make a sentence predicated with a stative verb more polite. In a sense, there are two words desu in Japanese: one is a polite copula that predicates sentences, and the other is a politeness marker added to stative verbs. However, da always functions as a predicate, so it cannot be combined with a stative verb, because sentences need only one predicate. See the examples below.

  • このビールはうまい。Kono biiru wa umai "This beer is good" (lit., this beer TOPIC be-tasty)
  • このビールはうまいです。Kono biiru wa umai desu "This beer is good" (lit., this beer TOPIC be-tasty POLITE)
  • *Kono biiru wa umai da (the asterisk indicates unacceptability)

Japanese also has two verbs corresponding to English "to be": aru and iru. Neither of them are copulas. Aru is used for inanimate objects, including plants, while iru is used for people and animals, though there are exceptions to this generalization. Different usages of the copula, stative verbs, and the two verbs of being are shown below.

  • 本はテーブルにある。Hon wa teeburu ni aru. "The book is on the table."
  • キムさんはここにいる。Kimu-san wa koko ni iru."Kim is here."
  • 私はアメリカ人だ。Watashi wa amerikajin da. "I am an American."
  • 純子さんは変だ。Junko-san wa hen da. "Junko is strange."
  • これは楽しい。Kore wa tanoshii. "This is fun."

Indo-European languages

Main article: Indo-European copula

In Indo-European languages, the words meaning "to be" (originating in stem *es) often sound similar to each other. Due to the high frequency of their use, their inflection retains a considerable degree of similarity in some cases. Thus, for example, the English form is is an apparent cognate of German ist, Latin est and Russian jest', in spite the fact that the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic language groups split at least three thousand years ago.

A feature of most Romance languages is the coexistence of two different verbs meaning "to be", the main one from the Latin SVM, and a secondary one from STO (see Romance copula). The essential difference is that the former usually refers to essential characteristics, whilst the latter refers to states and situations, e. g. "Bob is old" versus "Bob is well".

  • Italian Bob vecchio — Bob is old
  • Italian Bob sta bene — Bob is well

In Spanish, for example, the quite high degree of verbal inflection, plus the existence of two copulae (ser and estar), means that there are 105 separate forms to express the eight of English, and one of Chinese.

In certain languages there are not only two copulae but the syntax is also changed when one is distinguishing between states or situation and essential characteristics. For example, in Irish, describing the subject's state or situation typically uses the normal VSO ordering with the verb b. The copula is, which is used to state essential characteristics or equivalences, requires a change in word order so that the subject does not immediately follow the copula (see Irish syntax).

Russian and Hungarian

In languages such as Russian or Hungarian, the copula in present tense is implied rather than spoken (Russian: ja chelovek "I'm a (hu)man"; Hungarian: ő ember "he is a (hu)man"). This usage (also common in Semitic languages), is known generically as the zero copula. Note that in other tenses (sometimes in other persons besides singular third) the copula usually reappears. In Hungarian, zero copula is restricted to present tense in 3rd person singular and plural (see examples above): " ember/k emberek - "s/he is a human"/"they are humans"; but: "(n) ember vagyok" - "I am a human", "(te) ember vagy" - "you are a human", "(mi) emberek vagyunk" - "we are humans", "(ti) emberek vagytok" - "you (all) are humans". (But: "az emberek a hzban vannak" - "the people are in the house".

To recycle the above examples ("Bob is old" versus "Bob is here"), Hungarian only uses a copula in the latter case (and this not only with regard to third person singular/plural) (Itt van Rbert), but not in the first example (Rbert reg). This is to relate a subject to a more temporary condition/state taking place in space (very often in the sense of Lojban zvati - "la rabyrt. zvati ne'i le zdani" (Robert is in the house)).

In Russian, the verb byt’ is the infinitive of "to be". The third person singular, jest’ means "is" (and, interestingly enough, it is a homonym of the infinitive "to eat"). As a copula, it can be inflected into the past (byl), future (budet) and subjunctive (byl, by) forms. A present tense (jest’) exists; however, it almost never used as a copula, but rather omitted altogether or replaced by the verb javlatsa (to be in essence). Thus one can say:

  • Ona byla krasivoj = "she was beautiful" (adjective in instrumental case)
  • Ona krasivaja = "she is beautiful" (adjective in the nominative case)
  • Ona javlajetsja krasivoj = "she is beautiful" (adjective also in instrumental)

But not (except for archaic effect)

  • *Ona jest’ krasivaja = "she is beautiful"


Despite being an extremely regular agglutinative language, Turkish forms its "being" verb differently from other verbs, just as "to be" in English has twice as many forms as most of its other verbs.


Just like in English, the verb "to be" (qopna) is irregular in Georgian; different verb roots are employed in different tenses. The roots -ar-, -kn-, -qav-, and -qop- (past participle) are used in the present tense, future tense, past tense and the perfective tenses respectively. Examples:

Mastsavlebeli var ("I am a teacher")
Mastsavlebeli viknebi ("I will be a teacher")
Mastsavlebeli viqavi ("I was a teacher")
Mastsavlebeli vqopilvar ("I have been a teacher")
Mastsavlebeli vqopiliqavi ("I had been a teacher")

Note that in the last two examples (perfective and pluperfective) two roots are used in one verb compound. In the perfective tense, the root qop (which is the expected root for the perfective tense) is followed by the root ar, which is the root for the present tense. In the pluperfective tense, again, the root qop is followed by the past tense root qav. This formation is very similar to German. In German, the perfective and the pluperfective are expressed in this way:

Ich bin ein Lehrer gewesen ("I have been a teacher")
Ich war ein Lehrer gewesen ("I had been a teacher")

Here, gewesen is the past participle of sein ("to be") in German. In both examples, just like in Georgian, this participle is used together with the present and the past forms of the verb in order to conjugate for the perfect and the pluperfect tenses.


Nahuatl, as well as some other Amerindian languages, has no copula. Instead of using a copula, it is possible to conjugate nouns or adjectives like verbs.

Siouan languages

In Siouan languages like Lakota, this is similar as in principle almost all words - according to their structure - are verbs. So, not very unlike in Lojban (see below), not only (transitive, intransitive and so-called 'stative') verbs but even nouns often behave like verbs - and do not need to have copulas. E.g. _wicasa_ [wicha's^a] - man/adult male, to-be-a-man -> wimacasa/winicasa/he wicasa (I am/you are/he is a man). Yet, there also is a verb (copula) _heca_ [he'cha] (to be a such) that in most cases is used: "wicasa hemaca/henica/heca" (I am/you are/he is a man). So, in order to express that I am a doctor of profession, I have to say: "pezuta wicasa hemaca" [phez^u'ta wicha's^a hema'cha]. But in order to express that I'm THE doctor (say, that had been phoned to help), I'd have to use another copula _(i)ye_ (to be the one): "pezuta wicasa (kin) miye lo" (medicine-man DEF ART I-am-the-one MALE ASSERT).

In order to refer to space (e.g. Robert is in the house), various verbs are used as copula, e.g. _yankA_ [yaNka'] (lit.: to sit) for humans, _han/he_ [haN'/he'] (to stand upright) for inanimates of a certain shape. So, "Robert is in the house" could be translated as "Robert timahel yanke (yelo)", whereas "there's one restaurant next to the gas station" translates as "owotetipi wigli-oinazin kin hel isakib wanzi he".

Artificial languages

The artificial language Lojban has no copula at all, because all words that express a predicate can be used as verbs. The three sentences above would all have the same form in Lojban: la bob. bajra, la bob. tolcitno, and la bob. fagdirpre.

The E-Prime language, based on English, simply avoids the issue by not having a generic copula. It requires instead a specific form such as "remains", "becomes", "lies", or "equals".

Esperanto uses the copula much as in English. However, as with the rest of Esperanto grammar, there are no irregularities. The infinitive is esti, and the whole conjugation is regular.

Existential usage

The existential usage of "to be" is distinct from and yet, in some languages, intimately related to its copulative usage. In language as opposed to formal logic, existence is a predicate rather than a quantifier, and the passage from copulative to existential usage can be subtle.

For example:

  • Japanese: 吾輩は猫である。名前はまだないWagahai wa neko de aru. Namae wa mada naiI am a cat. As yet, I have no name. — Soseki Natsume
  • English: To be or not to be, that is the question. — William Shakespeare
  • English: [Why climb Mount Everest?] Because it is there. — George Mallory
  • Russian: Страна, которую ищут дети, есть [Strana, kotoruju ishchut djeti, jest'] – That land we yearn for in our childhood is there.Prishvin
  • French: Je pense, donc je suis.I think, therefore I am. — Descartes
  • Latin: Cogito ergo sum.I think, therefore I am. — Descartes

Other languages prefer to keep the existential usage entirely separate from the copula. Swedish, for example, reserves vara for the copula, keeping bli (to become) and finnas (to be found) for becoming and existing, respectively.

  • Swedish: Vem vill bli miljonr?Who wants to be a millionaire?. — Regis Philbin
  • Swedish: Varfr bestiga Mt. Everest? Drfor att den finns dr.Why climb Mt. Everest? Because it is there. — George Mallory

In ontology, philosophical discussions of the word "be" and its conjugations takes place over the meaning of the word is, the third person singular form of 'be', and whether the other senses can be reduced to one sense. For example, it is sometimes suggested that the "is" of existence is reducible to the "is" of property attribution or class membership; to be, Aristotle held, is to be something. Of course, the gerund form of "be", being, is its own (vexed) topic: see being and existence.ja:コピュラ ga:Copail


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