How did the verbs 居{ゐ}る / 居{い}る, 居{を}る / 居{お}る develop their function as existential verbs?

1 Answer 1


OJ = Old Japanese (about 700 - 800)

EMJ = Early Middle Japanese (about 800 - 1200)

LMJ = Late Middle Japanese (about 1200 - 1600)

NJ = Modern (New) Japanese (since about 1600)

cNJ = contemporary Modern Japanese

Infinitive = [連用形]{れんようけい} / Continuative

Gerund = te-form

Bjarke Frellesvig (2010, "A History of the Japanese Language", pages 350-352):

12.4 Existential verbs; ar-, i-, or-

The main, neutral verb of existence in Japanese is ar- which has been a prominent feature of the language since OJ, in more or less unchanged form and function. In addition to the uses as an existential verb, ar- has through the history of the language had important grammatical functions (, namely (a) to form stative constructions and (b) to form extended analytic forms with the adjectival and regular copula and the negative auxiliary. Since OJ ar- has had a number of exalted or polite variants, e.g. OJ mas-, imas-, pab(y)er- (not phonographically attested in OJ, cf., EMJ imase, opase- (> owase-), LMJ odyar-, oryar-, goza(a)r- (cf. 12.7.2), which have also been used in the grammatical functions of ar-.

NJ has two more existential verbs, i- and or-. In standard NJ, i- is used mostly with animate subjects, whereas ar- is used with inanimate subjects, and or- is a humble synonym of i- (although or- is used in some inflected forms instead of i-, e.g. infinitive ori). In other varieties of cNJ these verbs are used and distributed differently. For example, Kansai Japanese tends to use or- as the neutral verb of existence with animate subjects.

Statives have through the history of Japanese been formed by a verbal infinitive or gerund + ar- (or another verb of existence), and in OJ, EMJ and early LMJ also by stative auxiliaries (-yer- and -(I)tar-), both of which incorporate ar-. As mentioned above, the EMJ stative auxiliary -(I)tar- (< OJ -(i)te ar-) is reflected in the late LMJ and NJ past tense flective -(I)ta (12.1.3). In standard NJ statives are generally formed by gerund + i- (kaite iru 'is writing, has written', usually abbreviated kaiteru), whereas gerund + ar- is only used as a restricted resultative stative construction (kaite aru 'has been written'). Again, other varieties form statives differently, in Kansai Japanese mostly by gerund + or- (kaite oru, kaitoru). In some varieties of Japanese, statives include progressive function, but other dialects have separate expression of progressive, e.g. kakyoru (<= kaki oru) 'is writing' in some varieties of Kansai, reflecting the OJ analytic progressive (

The two existential verbs NJ i- and or- derive from OJ wi- 'sit down, settle down' and wor- 'be sitting', respectively. Kinsui's detailed study (2006) has shown (a) that these two verbs were not used as simple existentials until LMJ, and (b) that wor- is the old lexicalized stative form of (an ancestor of) wi-, paralleling the regular morphological OJ stative in -yer-, e.g. sakyer- 'be blooming' (< *saki ar-), kyer- 'be wearing' (< *ki ar-), but reflecting a slightly different formation (e.g. *(w)u ar- or *wo ar-, attaching ar- to the diachronic root of wi-, not its infinitive). Thus, in OJ and EMJ wi- and wor- were used as lexical verbs, wi- 'sit down' being the antonym of tat- 'rise, arise, stand up', and wor- 'be sitting' the antonym of tater- 'be standing', the morphological stative of tat-. In addition, from EMJ a new regular stative was formed on wi- by the EMJ stative auxiliary to give wi-tar- 'be sitting' whose use gradually increased over wor-.

In OJ, wor- was used to form progressives, e.g. tomosi wor- 'be lighting' ( This use continued in EMJ, where wor- was also, though more rarely, used with the gerund rather than the infinitive. From EMJ progressives were also formed with wi-tar-, usually on the infinitive, but sometimes on the gerund ( The fact that this use of wor- and wi-tar- to form progressives precedes their use as free existential verbs, with animate subjects, suggests that the use in progressive constructions formed the basis for the reinterpretation of wor- and wi- as existential verbs, that is to say, developments as shown in (16a).


Lexical verb Stative lexical verb form Use in progressive constructions Existential verb
a. wi- 'sit' wor- 'be sitting down' mi wor- 'be seeing' or- 'be'
wi-tar- 'be sitting down' mi witar- 'be seeing' itar- > ita > i- 'be'
b. tat- 'stand up' tat-er- 'be standing' mi tater- 'be seeing'
pus- 'lie down' pus-er- 'be lying down' mi puser- 'be seeing'

Note that the morphological statives of also tat- 'stand up' and pus- 'lie down', tater- 'be standing' and puser- 'be lying', in EMJ were used in progressive constructions, but that they were not reinterpreted as existential verbs, (16b). This offers strong support for the development proposed here, from a stative lexical verb to use in progressive constructions and then further to an existential verb (as opposed to a course of development where the use as existential verb precedes the use in progressive constructions).

Such a use of stative positional verbs in progressive constructions is found in other languages, for example Danish, where ligge 'be lying', sidde 'sit, be sitting', stå 'be standing' are used as exemplified in (17), with the positional meaning bleached or lost. Outside such constructions these verbs are lexical stative verbs, which cannot be used as existentials.

(17)  han  ligger    og   kører   rundt   i   sin  store bil
      he   is lying  and  drives  around  in  his  big   car
      'he is driving around in his big car'

Already in OJ, wor- was univerbated, incorporating the original morphology as part of the lexical stem. As stative -(I)tar- changed from auxiliary to a flective (, EMJ wi-tar- > LMJ i-tar- gave late LMJ ita, and it appears to have been the form ita which was initially reinterpreted as a nonpast existential verb. In late LMJ there are uses of ita in nonpast existential function and this is still found in cNJ dialects in northern Japan, but ita was generally reformed to i-, presumably because the morphology remained transparent and ita does not conform to the basic stem shape of verbs.

By the end of LMJ, i- was firmly established as an existential verb with animate subjects and was also widely used in stative constructions, mostly following the gerund, but sometimes following the infinitive. At that point, however, it had not entirely replaced ar- and its exalted and polite synomyms in these functions. Ar- was still used with animate subjects in late LMJ, alongside i-, but was eventually replaced by i- to give the distribution we find today. The specialized use of i- and or- as existential verbs with animate subjects is probably a reflection of their original semantics, which were mainly agentive and volitional, and of their use in progressives. The spread of the originally progressive construction with (w)ita(r-) to replace stative constructions in ar- may be thought to be related to the change to a past tense marker of the stative auxiliary -(I)tar- which incorporated ar- and also had analytic variants with ar- and its synonyms.

Since wor- started being replaced by the regular stative form wi-tar- in early EMJ, wor > or- has been subject to various reinterpretations in different varieties, to a large extent in socio-linguistic terms, but or- has survived both in standard cNJ and in Kansai cNJ where, as mentioned above, it is in many varieties used as the neutral existential verb with animate subjects.

Regarding dating of phonemic change:

Bjarke Frellesvig (2010, "A History of the Japanese Language", page 207):

Syllable initial /w/ was lost before /o/, completed around 1000. (...)

The loss of /w/ before /i, e/ proceeded in two phases: in word medial position, concluded around 1100, e.g. (22); in word initial position, concluded around 1300, i.e. in the LMJ period, e.g. (23).

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