So, I'm the type to understand how languages work than actually speaking them. One thing which I really have a problem with is how で and は works. After a bit of searching, I learned that で meant にて, and that was fine and all, but that also complicated some stuff. Such as why is the て there relevant? Why not just use に and forget about で?

I then decided to look at other languages. One thing I realized, mostly in English, is how if you say "a is b," that doesn't mean "a == b," it means that "a is in the list of b." I also then looked at the uses of the て form of verbs and they seem to create a relationship between the two verbs, and from that, I decided that the て there would connect the に section to the verb. So, an example would be 「これはきれいである」 would mean that "This is in the list of pretty(things).

Then, I was pretty much satisfied with that, until 「ではない」. That pretty much made everything confusing to me again, on a large-scale. What I don't understand is how the は there is relevant, why would you just not simply use 「でない」 instead of 「ではない」? What makes them so distinguished?

I'm really having a hard time trying to understand this, it's been a month, and I still haven't been able to find and in-depth article about this, and decided to come here instead.

  • Is your question relating specifically to the copula である? で and は are never interchangeable and have very, very distinct functions.
    – Sjiveru
    Jun 13, 2014 at 3:41
  • I would actually describe である as 'exists (ある) as (で) the noun'.
    – Sjiveru
    Jun 13, 2014 at 3:43
  • @Sjiveru I actually had that idea before that, but then I thought that it just doesn't add up how で would mean "as" when it came from にて and に is a positional particle. It's not really specifically the copula, but somewhat related. However, I'm pretty sure if I understand how て and は works, I'd start understanding stuff.
    – Myrl
    Jun 13, 2014 at 3:48
  • 2
    I would say "exists" is an overtranslation, though. Although ある still has that meaning, when it's part of the copular で+ある construction I think it's been grammaticalized, and part of that process is semantic bleaching--loss of the verb's original meaning. (ある plays a lot of grammatical roles in Japanese.) Anyway, I'd like to write an answer for this, but I need time to put my thoughts together and re-check my sources :-)
    – user1478
    Jun 13, 2014 at 3:52
  • @snailboat I'd really appreciate sources, since I want to read long articles. :3
    – Myrl
    Jun 13, 2014 at 3:54

1 Answer 1


Let's see if I can explain this as thoroughly as possible.

は is the topic particle. It marks one of the following things:

  • Old information that's being talked about (analogous to 'the' in English)

  • A contrast (e.g. あの家は白いけど、この家は青い)

It really doesn't mark much else.

に is a lot of things, but most of them are irrelevant to this question. The important uses are these:

  • The ren'youkei ('infinitive', which is a terrible term) of the Old and Middle Japanese copula なり

  • Locative (in Middle and Modern Japanese, only a static locative - it's where something is located, not where something is happening)

-て is a verbal continuative affix that attaches to the ren'youkei. Before Modern Japanese, it had a sense of sequentiality (e.g. 'this and then that'); but these days X-て Y just means 'X and Y' regardless of whether the actions are sequential or simultaneous.

にて, then, is the Middle Japanese dynamic locative. It marks where things are happening (in contrast to where they're located, which is just に). This distinction between static and dynamic locatives is new as of Middle Japanese, and I don't know if anyone can definitively say why this distinction was created. (I personally suspect that it was an attempt to copy Korean's =e/=seo distinction, but that's original research.) I don't know if anyone knows why they picked this particular construction, either, though it is a valid way to say 'exists in a place and then (something else)'. にて has since turned into で through phonetic reduction.

What's にて doing in the copula, then? Japanese (and probably Japonic as a whole) has had a copula of the form locative+あり (modern ある) for as long as we can tell. The original form was なり (from に+あり), though at some point around the end of the 1500s Japanese switched from using に to using にて (>で) as the copula's locative particle. I don't think anyone knows why, sometimes these things just happen. である of course still exists in Modern Japanese, though it's also been phonetically reduced - to だ in the northwest and to じゃ elsewhere, and subsequently from じゃ to や in Kansai and a few other places.

The negative is で(は)ない because the negative of ある is ない. Why is there a topic particle in there? My guess is this: because almost always, when you say 'X is not Y', you're implying that X is something other than Y. It's then the contrastive use of the topic particle - X is not Y (but it is something else). You can get the contrastive use without the negative also, as ではある, though it's much less common. Over time, ではない has become a set phrase - it's not so much that there's something semantically wrong with でない, it's just that ではない is so much more common that it's replaced でない in the few uses where でない might have been preferred, allowing the negative form to be ではない and only ではない.

You can actually hear でない in certain cases, though. Relative clauses in formal speech are one case - since you're not supposed to have topics inside subclauses, you lose the は. (In informal speech, the set phrase effect comes into play again, and the restriction on topics is ignored since no one's thinking of は here as a topic marker at all anymore - it's just part of the phrase.) You can also hear it as an alternative phonetic reduction to じゃない - some areas in the northwest use でない as their everyday negative form of だ.

So in short: it's で instead of に because diachronic change sometimes does things like that, and it's ではない instead of でない because ではない has turned into a set phrase.

  • I always appreciate history lessons! :D I'll reread this over and over again so that I'll fully understand.
    – Myrl
    Jun 14, 2014 at 18:59
  • Related question. (The answer here compliments the answer received then.): japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/8280/…
    – Tim
    Jun 15, 2014 at 0:39
  • 1
    I don't think "にて didn't exist" is historically accurate. I think にて existed as far back as we have records of OJ. The forms に and にて coexisted and gradually became more specialized. (I've read reconstructions where に was originally the 連用形 of an older Proto-Japonic copula, explaining why て was able to attach to it.)
    – user1478
    Jun 15, 2014 at 9:14
  • 1
    "OJ ni and nite became more specialized with ni being used more for arguments and nite more for adjuncts; from mid to late EMJ nite acquired the variant de which is still in use in contemporary NJ. Note that ni, no, nite (de), and to in addition to their uses as case and conjunctional particles remained forms of the copula, as they do in contemporary NJ." -Frellesvig, A History of the Japanese Language (2010) p.243
    – user1478
    Jun 15, 2014 at 9:14
  • I'm not sure that I agree with Frellesvig's analysis of the copula, but I'll edit the answer.
    – Sjiveru
    Jun 15, 2014 at 20:10

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