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I am intrigued by the usage of the expressions there is/there are denoting existence. Specifically, I am curious about the reason why we use an adverb of place even when referring to things that occupy no physical location (e.g. there is a positive number that, when multiplied by itself, yields 25).

What is the history behind this expression?

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    We use all kinds of words and constructions for "things that occupy no physical location." Why should existential there be an exception? Does or does not the number you mention exist? – AmE speaker Sep 19 '18 at 15:15
  • @Knotell I've never suggested it should; I am just curious about how it came to be in use – Carvo Loco Sep 19 '18 at 15:17
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    FWIW, other languages use similarly obtuse constructions: German has "es gibt" or "it gives". Mandarin Chinese uses "有" which as a single character is usually glossed as "has". – The Photon Sep 19 '18 at 16:26
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    It's not an adverb of place, but a dummy pronoun. Historically, it derives from the locative there of e.g. Don't go there, but the dummy pronoun there has been bleached of its locative meaning and reanalysed as a pronoun. – BillJ Sep 19 '18 at 17:04
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    Hisorical note: Though always available, the dummy subject construction with it or there was fairly uncommon until ca. 1250, when its rapid rise in frequency correlates to the virtual diappearance of the finite verb first declarative sentence pattern. books.google.de/… – KarlG Sep 20 '18 at 8:49
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What's used here is not the locative there but instead is called existential there. Existential there is really a dummy subject, so it doesn't really have a meaning.

As for the etymology, It seems like there are several competing theories about when and how existential there came into being in English. (What is agreed seems to be that the locative meaning came first and the existential meaning branched off it.) Some believe that Old English didn't use existential there. Others believe that existential there predates Old English. In this quote, "there1" is existential there and "there2" is locative there:

I have shown elsewhere that the two there's were already functionally differentiated in Early Old English, and that this differentiation in some important respects resembles that of present-day English. But I did not claim that there1 and there2 were ALWAYS two words; I simply concluded that, if there, derived from there2, 'the separation must have occurred before the OE period'. The cognates of there in other Germanic languages argue that there1 and there2 are ultimately derived from a common source.

In a tentative hypothesis as to how there1 might have split off from there2, I propose that the adverb there2, which occurred frequently in sentence-initial position as a linking word, was first semantically re-analysed as an empty theme, and then syntactically re-analysed as a subject NP when English developed from a verb-second (TVX) language into a verb-medial (SVO) language. Such a hypothesis is compatible with Stockwell's hypothesis about the transitional stages between Proto-Germanic and Modern English. Note here that re-analysis is not an uncommon phenomenon in the history of the English language.
On the Interpretation of Existential There

Note that you can use existential there without "be", as in "there remains a...".


Also relevant: Existential "it is" has been used since Old English but it has dropped out of use in Standard English, although it is still used in some dialects. (See my answer here for more info on existential "it is".)


See also:

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I do not think the sense related to existence (existential) denoted by the phrase 'there is' etc. is based on 'there'. The presence of be creates the meaning of existence.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the etymology of be as:

Old English beon, beom, bion "be, exist, come to be, become, happen," from Proto-Germanic *biju- "I am, I will be." This "b-root" is from PIE root *bheue- "to be, exist, grow," and in addition to the words in English it yielded German present first and second person singular (bin, bist, from Old High German bim "I am," bist "thou art"), Latin perfective tenses of esse (fui "I was," etc.), Old Church Slavonic byti "be," Greek phu- "become," Old Irish bi'u "I am," Lithuanian būti "to be," Russian byt' "to be," etc.

Also, the 'there' in the phrase 'there is' etc. cannot be an adverb of place.

In the sentence, "there is (there exists) a positive number that, when multiplied by itself, yields 25", there has a nominal function - to be the subject of the main clause.

There are vacant rooms upstairs. Here, if 'there' were an adverb of place, the sentence would have been an example of redundant usage because of the other adverb of place, upstairs.

  • I don't think this is right because there are a lot of verbs other then be that are (or were) used with there to indicate existence. See Table 2 here for a list of such verbs. – Laurel Sep 20 '18 at 0:28

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