I have always wondered where the で in ~である (and ~でございます) comes from.

In the answer to the question 「です」, what is it really? Is my analysis correct?, Eiríkr Útlendi states that the で in ~である is the particle で. He also writes that in "older stages of the language, you'll find just that -- あり serves as the primary copular verb".

Concluding from this, somewhere along the way the old copula あり gained the particle で.

In an answer to the question Can the である copula be explained as で (particle) + ある (to exist), i.e. "to exist in the form of ~"?, however, Snailboat presents a view on the matter by linguist Kunio Nishiyama. If I understand correctly, Nishiyama basically refers to で as the real "to be", while the ある is only there as a "dummy" to indicate tense.

It strikes me as odd that the semantic core would be omitted back when あり on its own was used as the copula. Baring a misunderstanding on my part, doesn't it seem like these two analyses of である kind of clash with each other because of this?

I have two other questions relating to this: Why was this で (or maybe にて) added to (or reinserted into) the copula あり? Also, back when あり was used as the main copula, what was the distinction between what is today the copula ~である and the existential verb ある?

  • 1
    As snailboat mentioned, synchronic ("with the time" → within a single point of time) and diachronic ("through time" → looking at historical development) analyses are very different things. Your question appears to be asking about historical development -- a diachronic view -- whereas Kunio's analysis appears to be looking just at the modern language -- a synchronic view. Could you clarify your question as to whether you're interested more in the history, or the current state? Commented May 14, 2019 at 17:50
  • I was interested in the history of である because knowing it will probably make it easier to understand how this construction works nowadays. So you could say I'm more interested in the current state of である.
    – Kaskade
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 18:22
  • Unfortunately, now I'm more confused: you say, "I was interested in the history", and then you say "So you could say I'm more interested in the current state". Does that mean you're not interested in the history, and you're only interested in the modern language and analyses of how it functions currently? Commented May 14, 2019 at 18:49
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    I'm sorry to have caused confusion... To put it clearly: I'm more interested in how it functions currently. However, I wanted to take its history into account as well because I thought that doing so might make today's usage of である easier to understand (by looking at how it came to be).
    – Kaskade
    Commented May 14, 2019 at 19:10

1 Answer 1


Note: This answer is more in response to you saying you want it to be easier to understand, as opposed to the interest in the history.

This isn't backed up by any research, but the way I think about it is similar to the で used when stringing together adjectival nouns:

きれいで賑{にぎ}やかなまちだね? - It's a pretty and lively town, right?

Similar to て-forms, I see the で in ではありません similar to how Snailboat explains it, as a way to attach tense to the sentence in a way that sounds grammatical. The で to me sort of "functionalizes" the sentence in preparation for "a grammar" to happen.

  • Love your description, in preparation for "a grammar" to happen. :D Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 17:02

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