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Recently, I read this article which interprets である as described by this post's title, so 学生である would be analyzed as "(I) exist in the form of a student".

On one hand, である originated from にて + あり, with にて being the precursor of で particle.

非回答者 also mentioned here regarding the splicing of である with a topic

Grammatically, である can be treated as one word, which is probably why you feel it weird being spliced, but native speakers know instinctively that it consists of two parts で and ある and that the subject for ある could be squeezed in between. "in (= で) a certain state + subject + ある(exists)".

On the other hand, if one looks at the ある entry in dictionaries, e.g. 大辞林 definition (二).1, 大辞泉 definition (二).3, and 広辞苑 definition (12), one would see something along the lines of

名詞に助動詞「だ」の連用形「で」を添えた形に付いて

i.e. で is specified as the 連用形 of だ instead of as a particle.

Also, since ある in である is listed as 補助動詞, and Wikipedia JP's page on 補助動詞 says that

日本語などにおいて、別の動詞に後続することにより文法的機能を果たす動詞で、それ自体の本来の意味は保っていない(前の動詞との組合せで意味を持つ)ものである

is it still correct to isolate the ある and say it means "to exist"?

In short, can one break down である into the particle で and the verb ある, and analyze である as "to exist in the form of ~"?

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When you read that で is the 連用形 of 断定の助動詞「だ」, that's a reanalysis. That is, from a modern perspective it makes sense to talk about it that way, and you should be familiar with the concept if for no other reason than to understand dictionary entries.

But that doesn't mean that's how it came about historically. Of course だ is contracted from である, and etymologically で is just である without the tense-bearing ある. The same thing is true of the old copula なり, which is a contraction of にあり. If you look it up, you'll see that it's analyzed as having に as a 連用形, but from an etymological perspective it's simply にあり without the あり.

To assert that it's etymologically a だ plus て, we'd need to suggest something like にてありて somehow contracting all the way down to で, but this is implausible historically, given that に and にて were used as copulas before the derived copula である existed. The copula に goes back all the way to proto-Japonic and is clearly a more basic form.


You also ask "is it still correct to isolate the ある and say it means 'to exist'." Here I have to say no.

It's clear that in Modern Japanese ある in である is being used grammatically, not lexically. "Exist" is a gross over-translation. If you'd like to suggest that this was where it comes from etymologically, that it's its literal meaning, you could do so (although I think the "as" meaning of で is historically secondary, so I don't think it's quite right). But in any case I don't think that's what it means now.

Remember that etymology does not determine what a word means in the modern language. To determine that, you have to look at how it's used now. Otherwise, you're falling victim to the etymological fallacy.


So how do we analyze it now? Well, there's more than one valid way to think about it, and I won't attempt to teach you the One True Analysis. But I'll present one possible alternative below.

The modern linguist Kunio Nishiyama, in his 1999 Adjectives and the Copulas in Japanese, refers to で as the predicative copula and ある as the dummy copula. In this analysis, the former is used to create copular predicates, and the latter is a dummy verb whose sole purpose is to bear tense. (Of course, ある has other uses where it is not a dummy verb.)

If we adopt this theory, we can treat the combination of である contracting into だ when the two are next to each other. This contraction only happens under certain conditions. For example, if you insert a particle such as も, the contraction is blocked:

 Aで  Bで  ある  →  Aで Bだ     (である becomes)  
 Aで Bで ある  →  AでBである  (contraction blocked)

Here, both Aで and Bで are copular predicates, but it's not a complete sentence without ある, which turns the whole thing into a present tense sentence.

In similar fashion, we can treat だった as contracted from であった and です as contracted from であります if we'd like (although the actual historical etymology of です is uncertain).

  • A lot to digest here. I have a feeling that I've bitten more than I can chew... Would all the 補助動詞 be considered "dummy copula"? – 3 to 5 business days Aug 2 '14 at 19:12
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    @3to5businessdays 補助動詞 are grammaticalized uses of certain verbs (Martin 1975 p.512 lists いる/おる/いらっしゃる, くる/まいる, いく, くれる/くださる, しまう, みる, おく, もらう/いただく, ある/ございます, やる/あげる, and みせる) following て in which the verbs no longer have their usual meaning and aren't considered to form independent predicates. Most of them are not dummies because they contribute semantically, e.g. ~ている with its progressive/resultative/habitual/experiential meanings that ~て alone does not have. In contrast, で can form non-finite predicates without ある, so we can conclude that ある doesn't contribute semantically to である. – snailcar Aug 2 '14 at 19:29
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The で in 「名詞 + である」 is not a particle/助詞, but a 助動詞(auxiliary verb).

The ある in 「名詞 + である」 is not a 補助動詞(subsidiary verb) because 補助動詞 should follow a te-form verb. The ある in [包]{つつ}んである、[畳]{たた}んである、[組]{く}んである etc. would be a 補助動詞.

The である in 「名詞 + である」 consists of 助動詞「だ」の連用形「で」 + 動詞「ある」. 「名詞 + である。」 at the end of a sentence functions in the same way as 「名詞 + です。」(polite) and 「名詞 + だ。」(casual).

Yes, you can break down である into で(assertive auxiliary verb だ) and ある(the verb 在る/有る) and analyse it as "to exist as~~ / to exist in the state of ~~". You don't "translate" it that way, though.

  • 大辞泉・大辞林 specifies ある as 補助動詞 though. – 3 to 5 business days Aug 2 '14 at 18:56
  • @3to5businessdays Heh... I realised I know so little about my own language... – user1016 Aug 3 '14 at 12:47

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