From: Ljuba Veselinova <ljubaling.su.se>
Subject: Existential Constructions
Query for this summary posted in LINGUIST Issue:
Here comes a summary of the responses to my query sent on the LINGUIST
List, issue 18.1143.
I asked for data on existential constructions, especially from languages
where at least two different kinds are observed: one that is pragmatically
unmarked as in (i) and another that is pragmatically marked as in (2)
(i) There is such a thing as non-alcoholic beer
(ii) Non-alcoholic beer exists
My warmest thanks go to
Werner Abraham (German)
Michael Barrie (European Portuguese)
Madalena Cruz-Ferreira (European and Brazilian Portuguese)
Ivano Caponigro (Italian)
Katalin Mady (Hungarian)
Matti Miestamo (Finnish)
Lameen Souag (Algerian Arabic)
German (Werner Abraham):
(i) Da ist so was wie nichtalkoholisches Bier.NOM
(ii) Nichtalkoholisches Bier.NOM existiert
But German tends to say that differently:
(iii) Da gibt es so etwas wie nichtalkoholische Bier.ACC
there gives EXPL so something like non-alcoholic beer
(iv) Es gibt (so etwas wie) naB.ACC ... the best, idiomatically, most
Clearly, each of these are TP-clauses - i.e., they have no topic and,
consequently, do not reach up to CP! See my last article in Schwabe&Winkler
(eds.) ''Information structure ...'' 2007 published by John Benjamins,
The sentence in (ii) is pragmatically highly marked. The normal/frequently
used construction is with left dislocation as in (v)
(v) Nichtalkoholisches Bier, DAS gibt es.
'non-alc. beer, that gives it'
Portuguese (European & Brazilian), (Michael Barrie, Madalena Cruz-Ferreira)
The data below are from Madalena Cruz-Ferreira. Michael Barrie gave me a
lead that I still need to check.
In (European) Portuguese, the equivalents would be:
(i) Há cerveja sem álcool
where 'Há' is an inflected verbal form -- the verb is 'haver', cognate of
Brazilian Portuguese uses 'tem' instead of 'há', from the verb 'ter' which
translates as English 'have'.
(ii) Cerveja sem álcool existe
with the verb 'existir'.
In case this is relevant, the constituent order here is free. You can also say:
(i) Cerveja sem álcool há
(ii) Existe cerveja sem álcool
The constructions with ’exist’ are more formal/technical and thus
Italian (Ivano Caponigro)
(1) Non ci sono birre alcooliche.
not there are beers alcoholic
(2) Non esistono birre alcooliche.
not exist beers alcoholic
Hungarian (Katalin Mady)
The equivalent to the sentence ''there is such a thing as...'' would be
Van olyan, hogy alkoholmentes sör. (Is such as non-alcoholic beer.)
Nincs olyan, hogy alkoholmentes sör.
L´etezik olyan, hogy alkoholmentes sör. (Exists such as non-alcoholic beer.)
Nem l´etezik olyan, hogy alkoholmentes sör.
Please note that the first construction ''van olyan, hogy...'' has a
slightly different meaning in colloquial Hungarian. It can be used for
''There are situations when.../sometimes...''. An example: ''There are
times when you don't bother to get up in the morning.'':
Van olyan, hogy az embernek reggel nincs kedve felkelni. (Is such that
Finnish (Matti Miestamo)
Finnish has the following construction:
Alkoholi-ton-ta olut-ta on ole-ma-ssa
alcohol-less-PART beer-PART be.3SG be-NMLZ-INE
'Non-alcoholic beer exists.'
Without the nominalized ''olemassa'' 'in being' this would be an unmarked
exstential, but with it I would say this is the kind of marked construction
you are looking for. The dictionary translation for the English word
''exist'' is ''olla olemassa'' (lit. 'to be in being').
Arabic (Algerian) (Lameen Souag)
In Algerian Arabic, there is an ‘exist’ construction, y-igzisti ''it
exists'', borrowed from French.
''There is'' is normally kayen, etymologically a participle ''being''
(irregular negative makash.) This word sometimes agrees in number and
gender with its referent and sometimes doesn't.
The French loan is fairly rarely used. You might use it, for example, to
render something like ''Je pense donc je suis'' - you simply can't say
*kayen ana (any more than you could say ''there's me'' in English with the
intended meaning of ''I exist'' rather than ''I am part of the set in
question''), so if you had to say it, you would use n-igzisti ''I exist''.
A brief search of online chats reveals a number of examples, almost all
combined with some degree of codeswitching but that's normal for Algerian
* hahahaha mazal yexisti had nou3 taa les femmes? (lol does this kind of
women still exist?) (
* Antik yerhem waldik, can u send me the link of derja dikssiounaire
blenglizia ila yexisti bien sour (Antik please can u send me the link of
Darja Dictionary in English if it exists of course)
* Hiphop ma zal yexisti (Hiphop still exists)
* en deux mots : ma yexistich en un mot makachou. (In two words: it doesn't
exist. In one word: it's not here.) (
* c un ideal li ma yexistich (It's an ideal that doesn't exist) (
* ma tinsistich, Si Djamal, hadi ma texistich. (Don't insist, Mr. Djamal,
such a woman doesn't exist.) (
* t7eb tegzisti lioum (You want to exist today) (Tunisian -
I think part of the reason for using ''igzisti'' is that ''kayen'' can
easily receive a more local reading (exist here, so to speak), while
''exist'' by default covers the entire universe. Part is probably simply
bilinguals not finding a real translation equivalent and deciding they need
There is certainly no verb in Algerian Arabic (other than igzisti) which
corresponds to ''exist''. In Classical Arabic, a common verbal
near-equivalent is the passive of ''find'' (wjd), but I think that if you
look in detail there are differences in its usage.
-------End of Individual responses------
As we can see, the languages where a marked ‘exist’ construction is
observed are all from Europe or its immediate surroundings. Naturally, it
is tempting to describe this as a pan-European phenomenon (which it
probably is but it would be nice to have more data). I will be working on
existentials and their negation for a while, so I would be interested to
get data from other languages than those already mentioned.
Again, many thanks to all who responded.
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