Copula and aspect system of Bangla

This is a work-in-progress. A part of this formed my M.A. dissertation at The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) Hyderabad, which was supervised by Dr. Utpal Lahiri. If you work on related areas, have any thoughts, feedback, ideas for collaboration, or are interested to take a look at the data, please do get in touch; I’d love to talk!

A copula is a verb that links the subject of a sentence to its predicate. Languages with a single copula verb (e.g. is in English, hai in Hindi), might invite an assumption that the copula serves a purely syntactic ‘linking’ role and has no semantic content. However, languages with multiple copula verbs (e.g. Bangla, Spanish, Marathi) challenge this view.

Multi-copula systems often show intricate patterns in the distribution and inferences associated with the different copulas. This project asks how such distributional tendencies come about functionally. In my dissertation, I used data pertaining to the copula ach- in Bangla to argue that at least some part of the distributional and inferential patterns is sensitive to properties of the larger discourse. Therefore, any account based on purely categorical constraints, either syntactic or semantic, is not adequate to capture the nuances of actual use.

I propose that ach- carries a lexical presupposition that constrains the nature of the circumstances against which its embedded proposition is asserted to be true. Specifically, such a circumstance must be crucially anchored to the discourse, and contain a bounded time interval. Anchoredness and boundedness are formalized as restrictions on the values of certain parameters in the circumstance of evaluation. This is a felicity condition on the use of ach-, and it interacts with other information in the discourse context to produce the range of interpretations associated with the copula. While this kind of formalization does a better job than existing categorical accounts at predicting patterns of use, there are many open questions.

What makes the Bangla ach- especially interesting is that it appears to have strong morphological links, and distributional similarities, with the progressive and perfect aspect morphology in the language. Like many other languages, the overt copula verbs in Bangla are identical to auxiliaries in verbal clauses. However, ach- differs from the other copulas in also being a part of the regular inflectional morphology for the progressive and perfect aspect. This suggests that a fuller treatment of the semantics of ach- could eventually lead towards a compositional analysis for these aspectual categories in Bangla. Conversely, this raises the possibility that independent distributional restrictions on the morphemes that are used to express an aspectual category, such as ach- in Bangla, could affect the range of functions available to the aspect morphology in the language. This could be one source of the observed variation in the behavior of aspectual morphology across languages.

Mitra, A (2021). A presuppositional account of the ach- copula in Bangla. M.A. dissertation, EFL University, Hyderabad. [pdf]