Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 3 March 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


Basanti Devi, Ph.D.


The Verb be has an important role to play in the syntax of any grammar. It is different from other verbs because of its nature and diversity of functions. It is unique and cannot be defined categorically.

The most important characteristic feature of verb be is its stativity. It can be either +stative or -stative. The form of verb be may also vary accordingly. For example, in Hindi hona serves as both +stative and -stative in present tense whereas in past tense tha is used for +stative purpose and hua is used for -stative purpose.

Unlike other verbs, be has multiple functions to perform in various types of constructions in the languages of the world. These functions are strikingly diverse in nature.


Russell (1903, as mentioned in Kahn 1973 : 4) pointed out four different functions of verb be:

  1. The sense in which it asserts being as in 'A is' (Existence).
  2. The sense of identity.
  3. The sense of predication as in 'A is human' (identity).
  4. The sense of 'A is man' (class inclusion).

But Russell's classification of the functions of verb be is not adequate.


In fact, the verb be performs many more functions. They can be classified in the following ways:


Verb be serves as a copula or a linker between two nouns, and its structure is 'NP is NP'.

In other words, it can be said that it links a subject and a predicate. This function is referred to as copulative function. It is interesting to note that the copula need not necessarily be present at the surface structure. This is evident in many languages of the world.

The copulative function can be further classified into Equative and Attributive constructions.


In these constructions, the verb be links two NPs, the structure of which is NN. There can be some more subcategories of Equative constructions which are mentioned below with examples:

  • Identification.
    Nina is my sister.
  • Class Membership.
    He is a teacher.
  • Generic.
    Lion is an animal.
  • Demonstrative.
    That is my horse.


In attributive constructions, the verb be serves as a copula between a noun and an adjective, for example,

She is good.

We may have generic attributive constructions like the following:

Sea is blue.
Tiger is wild.


The verb be is used for the purpose of forming participles. Three different types of participles, namely, adjectival, adverbial, and predicative perfect can be formed.


There are two types of adjectival participles, which can be illustrated in the following examples. Type 1 can be illustrated with the following Hindi examples:

  1. admi    gana    ga    reha    he
    man    song    sing    prog.m    is
    The man is singing a song.
  2. gana    gata:       hua:    admi
    song    singing    been    men
    The man (who) is singing a song.

From (i) we may form the imperfect participle of (ii) by adding the imperfect aspect marker ta to the verb root and juxtaposing hua, that is, the perfective form of verb be to it.

There is another type of Adjectival participle, which can be illustrated with the help of the following Assamese examples. (∩ stands for broken O in the examples given in this article.)

  1. soaliz∩ni    gh∩r∩t    asε
    girl-Det.     House Loc    is
    The girl is in the house.
  2. gh∩r∩t    th∩ka    soaliz∩ ni
    house Loc    be    girl-Det. (perfect Participle)
    The girl in the house.

In this sentence th∩ka which is perfect participle form of verb be is used as an adjective of the noun soali (girl).


In Hindi we find constructions in which perfective form of verb be is used to form an Adverbial Participle.

ram  khate    hue    gana ga    raha    tha
Ram    eating    been    song    sing    Prog.m    was
Ram was singing while eating.


Perfect Participle form of verb be may be used for predicative purpose. In such constructions, perfective form of verb be is juxtaposed to the main verb, for example,

vah    kami:z    pehna    (hua)    tha:
He    shirt    wearing    been    was
He was wearing a shirt.


Verb be also functions as a tense marker in a language. This can be illustrated with the help of the following Hindi sentences.

  1. vah    gana    ga    raha    hε
    he    song    sing    Prog.m.    is
    He is singing a song.
  2. vah    gana    ga    raha    tha
    he    song sing    Prog.m.    was
    He was singing a song.

In these sentences all the constituents of (i) remain the same in (ii) but the change in the form of verb be is used as a marker of tense.


Here the verb be functions as a main verb and focuses on the existence of the subject NP. It can be illustrated with the following example from Assamese.

kazir∩ηat    g∩r    thakε
Kizironga Loc.    Rhinoceros    is
Rhinoceros exist in Kazironga.
  1. Locative (Space)
    Verb be is used to indicate the spatial location of the subject NP in a construction.
    The girl is in the room.
  2. Locative (Time)
    Verb be is used to link a subject NP and a particular point in time in constructions which contain the temporal locative element.
    The meeting is at 6 O'clock.


Verb be serves as a linker between possessor noun and possessed noun. The nature of possession is of the following types.

a) (i) Kinship-blood relation, illustrated with Hindi examples.

Pitaji    ke    tin    bete    he
Father    Gen    three    sons    are
Father has three sons.

(ii) Kinship non-blood-relation. This is also illustrated with Hindi examples.

nina    ki    ek    saheli    hε
Nina Gen. One friend is
Nina has a friend.

b) (i) Animate Possession. Human.

This can be illustrated with the following Assamese example:

tar    sarita    sakor    asε
His    four    servant    is
He has four servants.

(ii) Animate Possession. Non-Human.

This is also illustrated with the following Assamese sentence.

mor    eta    pohonia    kukur    asε
I    Gen.   one    pet    dog    is
I have a pet dog.

c) Inalienable Possession. Illustrated with Bengali examples.

manusher    duto    pa    achε
man    Gen.    two    leg    is
Man has two legs.

However, verb be here ('achε') is optional.

d) Alienable Possession. This is also illustrated with Bengali examples.

tar    tintε    boy    achε
he    gen.    three    book    is
He has three books.

e) Physical State. Verb be is also used to indicate a physical state in the form of possession. For example, in Hindi,

mujhe    buxa:r    hε
I Dat.    fever    is
I have fever.

f) Mental Temperament

Mental temperatment can be indicated in possessive construction where verb be serves as a linker. This can be illustrated with the following Bengali examples.

amar procur dhorjya achε
I Gen.    great    patience    is
I have great patience.


This can be illustrated with an Assamese example. In Assamese, verb be, hoa, is used in its perfective form to serve the purpose of a conjunct verb. For example,

sinema    arombh∩ hoi    gol
Cinema    begin    be-go + pst
The film has begun.

However, verb be here is -stative.

Thus we find that verb be has diverse functions. Although there are different surface manifestations of verb be, there is reason to believe that they are all homogenous at an underlying level because they all exhibit one common aspect, namely, the state of being. Thus, it can be summarized that they are different forms of verb be only.


Assamese uses three verbs to serve the purposes of verb be. These are as, thak, and hoa. Their distribution is as follows:


No form of verb be is used as copula in affirmative sentences in the present tense. But it is present in future tense, past tense and in negative constructions in present tense also.

a) Equative Constructions

(i) Identification

Present Tense
teo    mor    stri She    I Gen.    wife She is my wife.
Present tense - Negative
teo    mor    stri    n ∩ h ∩y
She    I Gen.    wife    not    is
She is not my wife.
Past Tense
teo    mor    stri    asil
she    I Gen    wife    was
She was my wife.
Future Tense
teo    mor    stri    hobo
She    I Gen.    wife    will    be
She will be my wife.

In all equative constructions in Assamese, verb be is absent in present tense in case of affirmative whereas in case of negative, past tense and future tense, it is obligatory.

b) Generic Attributive Construction

(i) xag∩r nila
sea    blue
Sea is blue.
(ii) eix∩m∩yot    xag∩r    nila    h∩y
at    this    time    sea    blue    is
Sea is blue at this time.


a) Adjective Participle

Verb thak is used to form adjective participle of the following types.

(i) g∩s∩r porith∩ka pat
tree    Gen    fall    being leave
Falling tree leaves
(ii) mez∩r oporot tho∩ka k∩la∩mto bhal
table Gen.    on    being Pen Det    good
The pen on the table is good.

b) Adverbial Participle

In Assamese adverbial participles are formed in two ways:

(i) By reduplicating verb root imperfect aspect marker like the following.
xi    goy goy    uttor    dile
he    going going     reply    gave
He replied while going.

(ii) In this case imperfect marker of thak is juxtaposed with the imperfect aspect marker of the verb root.

hi    goy    thaki    uttor    dile
He    going    being reply    gave
He replied while going.


Verb be is also used in Assamese as Tense Marker. In this case verb hoa is used.

(i) bhat∩rⅣndha    hoise
rice    cooked being    is
Rice is being cooked.
(ii) bhat    r∩ndha    hoisil
rice    cooked being    was
Rice was being cooked.


Two verbs, namely, as and thak are used for this purpose.

(i) bhar∩t∩t onek gao asε
India Loc    many    villages    is
There are many villages in India.
(ii) kazir∩ηat g ∩r thakε
kazironga Loc.    rhinoceros    is
There are rhinoceros in Kazironga.
(iii) bhag∩ban asε
God    is
God exists.


Verb asε is used in these constructions.

a) Locative (Space).

tay    kothat    asε
she    room Loc.    is
She is in the room.
seni b∩t∩l∩t asε
sugar    bottle Loc.    is
Sugar is in the bottle.

b) Locative (Time)

h∩bhakh∩n    pasta    bozat    asε
meeting Det.    five    time Loc.    is
The meeting is at five o clock.


In Assamese verb be also serves as a linker between possessed noun and possessor noun. Both as and thak are used depending on the nature of possession. In case of universal truths thak is used and otherwise as is used. But usually they are optional.

a) Kinship: Blood and Non-blood Relation

tekhet∩r tiniz∩ni soali (asε) he(hon) Gen.    three    girl    is
He has three daughters.
Mor    onek    bondhu (asε) I Gen.    many    friend    is
I have many friends.

b) Animate Possession: Human and Non-Human

(i) tekhet∩r onek sak∩r (asε) he (hon) Gen    many    servant    is
He has many servants.
(ii) tekhet∩r    onek    pohonia    kukur    asε
he (hon) Gen.   many    pet    dog    is
He has many pet dogs.

It is noticed that, in case of human possession, verb be is optional but, in case of non-human possession, it is obligatory.

c) Inalienable Possession

In case of inalienable possession, two verbs are optionally used. In case of generic constructions, verb thak and in specific cases asε is used.

(i) manuh∩r    duta    bhori    (thakε)
man Gen.    two    leg    is
Man has two legs.
(ii) mor    duta    bhori    (as∩)
I Gen.    two    leg    is
I have two legs.

d) Alienable Possession

Verb be is used optionally.

(i) tar tiniknon kitap (asε)
he Gen.    three    book    is
He has three books.
(ii) tayr    dukhon    hari    (asε)
she Gen.    two    sari    is
She has two saris.

e) Physical State

In case of physical state verb be is optionally used.

(i) tar    zor    asε
he Gen.    fever    is
He has fever.

But verb be cannot be used in Assamese in a construction like 'I am hungry.' But such constructions are possible in many Indian languages.

f) Mental Temperament

Here also verb be is used either obligatorily or optionally depending on the structure of the sentence.

(i) tar    xah∩x    asε
he Gen.    courage    is
He has courage.


(ii) tar    bo∩r    xah∩x
he Gen.    great    courage
He has great courage.

From the above sentences it is obvious that when an adjective precedes the noun, verb be is optional, and otherwise it is obligatory.


Verb be, hoa, is used in its perfective form to serve the purpose of a conjunct verb. For example,

sinema    aro∩mb∩    hoi    gol
cinema    begin    +Perf.    Go+pst.
The movie has begun.

Verb be here is -stative.


hoa, a -stative verb, can also be used as a main verb in Assamese.

ki hol∩
What happened?

Thus, from the examples cited above, it can be concluded that most of the functions of verb be listed in the beginning are performed in Assamese by three different forms of the same verb as mentioned already.

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Basanti Devi, Ph.D.
All India Institute of Speech and Hearing
Mysore 570006, India