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If I understand this correctly, ありがとうございます is formed as follows. First, the adjective ありがたい is turned into the adverb ありがたく. Then, in ありがたく+ございます, ウ音便 takes place and ありがたく becomes ありがとう.

But in cases like this, what exactly is ございます? Is it a politer version of ある? If so, could one in theory form sentences in the form of "adjective連用形 + ある" like 高くある? And what does ある(ござる/ございます) mean in this context? It certainly makes no sense for ある mean "to exist/to have". Does it mean "to be"?

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ございます is basically just the masu-form of the verb ござる, which is a humble version of ある.

"There is a book here":

  • ここに本がある。 (plain)
  • ここに本があります。 (polite)
  • ここに本がござる。 (sounds like a samurai)
  • ここに本がございます。 (very polite and respectful)

These words behave like a copula (だ, "to be") in combination with で. I can say they no longer mean "to exist", but it's hard to explain why.

"This is a book.":

  • これは本である。 (stiff/formal/academic)
  • これは本であります。 (polite, sounds like a politician or a military personnel)
  • これは本でござる。 (humble, sounds like a samurai)
  • これは本でございます。 (very polite)

(ござる is an irregular verb and its masu-form is normally ございます, although ござります is occasionally used.)

Technically, they can also follow the ウ音便 of i-adjectives (e.g., 高うあります, 面白うござる), but we seldom see this happen today. (ウ音便 itself has become uncommon.) We don't need a copula for an i-adjective, so I think this type of あります/ござる/ございます is merely for showing respect or politeness, just like how we use です with an i-adjective. Instead of おいしゅうございます/おいしゅうござる, we normally say おいしいです now (see this discussion).

Still, something like 高くある is occasionally used in modern Japanese, and they have special connotations ("to stay", "will"). See this question for examples: i-adjective modifying ある (eg 強くありたい).

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  • 1
    You say, "ウ音便 itself has become uncommon." My impression is that it's more common in Kansai speech. Am I mistaken? – Eiríkr Útlendi May 1 at 5:01
  • 2
    @EiríkrÚtlendi Ah yes, they still commonly say おもろうない, ようやるわ and so on. – naruto May 1 at 5:06

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