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I've heard various things about this construction from many different people, a few examples of which are:

  • It's a verb meaning "to be".
  • It's a contraction of something like でございます (de gozaimasu) or ではあります (de wa arimasu).
  • It just kinda appeared as a "polite" marker.

Could anyone here offer a succinct explanation of what it actually means?

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4  
Be careful of the etymological fallacy! The etymology of a word is not always the same thing as "what it actually means". –  snailboat Jan 30 '13 at 12:56

1 Answer 1

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I think to answer your question it needs to be broken into two parts, namely "what is です's etymology?" and "where is です used?".

Usage

You will see です used in two ways:

  • As the polite form of the copula だ. In this case, it has the meaning "to be" and acts mostly like a verb, in that it inflects.

    彼{かれ}はお医者{いしゃ}さんです。 "He is a doctor."

    ちょっと変{へん}でした。 "It was a little weird."

  • As a polite marker for i-adjectives. Historically, i-adjectives had a polite inflection, 〜うございます, which showed up as late as the 1960s, but it was thought to be "too polite" in many cases and was eventually discarded. However, the non-polite form was considered to be too impolite, so 〜です was added on the end as a polite marker. It is not the copula here and as a result does not inflect.

    楽{たの}しいです。 "It is fun."

    熱{あつ}かったです。 "It was hot."

Etymology

Although there are many theories about the origin of です, the common one among linguists I know is that it is a contraction of でございます. However there are competing theories (でそう、であります) and there is not yet a consensus about the correct one.

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I would write 〜うございます instead of 〜しゅうございます. –  Zhen Lin Jan 29 '13 at 8:14
    
I agree, that's better, changed. –  Darius Jahandarie Jan 29 '13 at 12:26
    
Hmm, according to Wikipedia, the copula だ is itself a contraction of である. –  Joe Z. Jan 29 '13 at 21:39
1  
Yes, historically だ came from である. However, keep in mind that in modern language they are not considered contractions, they are just different forms each having their own usage. である is still used in literary writing as the (terminal form of the) copula, and also as the adnominal form of the copula in even non-literary writing. –  Darius Jahandarie Jan 29 '13 at 23:43
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The entry for です on 大辞林 lists a few theories down at the bottom. It says: 「です」の語源については、「でそう(で候)」説、「でござります」説、「であります」説、その他があるが、まだ定説化されたものはない。 –  snailboat Jan 30 '13 at 12:59

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