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Existential verbs in Croatian

Irena Zovko Dinković orcid id ; Filozofski fakultet, Zagreb

Puni tekst: hrvatski pdf 148 Kb

str. 279-294

preuzimanja: 1.441



In the existing linguistic literature on Slavic languages there are practically no works on
existential predicates in the Croatian language. This paper therefore examines some of the
existing claims about existentiality and the commonest Croatian existential verbs imati ’to have’
and biti ’to be’, and the negative verb nemati ’to.have.not’. The paper presents an analysis of
differences in meaning that sentences with these verbs acquire depending on the various case
marking of their arguments, as well as restrictions in word order, imposed by the information
structure of existential sentences. It also analyzes existential predicates under negation.
Croatian has a dozen verbs which may be used existentially (if we count verbs of perception
such as čuti ’hear’, vidjeti ’see’ or osje}ati ’feel’): biti ’be’, imati ’have’, nemati ’have.not’,
nedostajati ’miss’, uzmanjkati ’lack’, and nalaziti ’find’. Existentiality as a complex phenomenon
often escapes a firm definition but nevertheless we side with those who distinguish existential
sentences, which establish the existence of someone or something, from purely locational
sentences, which establish the fact that something is located someplace (cf. Clark, 1978; Babby,
1980; Freeze, 1992, and others). Within existential sentences we can further distinguish those
denoting absolute, timeless existence from those denoting concrete existentiality. The latter are
always associated with a particular location and therefore called locational–existential. Based
on Croft’s (1991) diachronic study of the development of verbal negators, Croatian would be
classified as type B, since it has a special form of affirmative and negative existential predicate,
with the verb imati ’have’, which is different from other verbal negators. However, this is limited
to the present tense – existential predicates in the past or future tense are expressed with the
verb biti ’be’ and negated with the same verbal negator as other predicates, which is typical of
type A. We would therefore consider Croatian to be of the transitory type A ∼ B, which shows
synchronic variability.
The paper then further analyzes some morphosyntactic and semantic characteristics of
existential constructions in Croatian, namely the fact that the difference between existential and
non–existential meaning does not lie entirely in the opposition between the nominative and the
genitive case, but in the interrelation of word order, case marking and information structure.
Many authors (cf. Clark, 1978; Babby, 1980; Ziv, 1982; Arutjunova, 1997; and others) think that
the difference between existential and non–existential sentences is reflected in the word order:
existential sentences have Loc–V–NP word order, whereas purely locative sentences have the
NP–V–Loc word order. The reason for this is the claim that in existential sentences both the
NP and the verb belong to the rheme, while location is the theme. Word order in existential
sentences is also tightly connected to the notion of definiteness or indefiniteness of the NP. The
basic principle is that a definite NP comes sentence–initial whereas the indefinite NP comes
sentence–final. The prototypical existential word order is also valid for Croatian but Croatian
allows many digressions from this rule: NPs that are morphologically or lexically marked as
indefinite need not be sentence–final, and definite NPs need not be themes nor come in the initial
position. A sentence that has a NP–V–Loc word order may be interpreted as existential if the NP
is in the genitive case, or as locational if the NP is in the nominative case. Thus this paper goes
against a widely accepted claim by Babby (1980, 2000) that existential sentence are rheme–only
sentences, and proves that genitive NPs can be thematic and sentence–initial, in which case they
carry a particular semantic implication. We believe that the interpretation of existential sentences
strongly depends upon the linguistic and situational context and support the claim of Borschev
and Partee (2002), who say that semantics influences the choice of existential / impersonal
sentence, while syntax is the mediator through which this difference is reflected in grammar. We
also side with those who claim that location, whether explicit or implicit in the sentence, is a
semantically obligatory part of existential constructions (cf. Borschev i Partee, 1998, 2002; Sgall
et al., 1986: 202; Dahl, 1969: 38; and others), and that every existential construction contains an
existential quantifier, which in turn in Croatian triggers the genitive case on the NP.We can therefore single out several basic features typical of existential and locative–existential
sentences: the use of an existential verb; the indefinitess of the NP which is typically, but not
always, found in sentence–final, rhematic position and which is subjectless and impersonal;
explicit or implicit location, and existential quantification. These features are not fixed but
subject to different interpretations, depending on the context and the speaker’s communicative

Ključne riječi

existential verbs, genitive, negation, Croatian language

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