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I am studying existential there, but I am not sure if the following sentences are exemple of existential sentences. All sentences come from Oscar Wilde's A house of pomegranates, available at Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/873/873-h/873-h.htm).

  1. "Many other mirrors are there, but they are mirrors of Opinion."
  2. "And the young Fisherman rose up and crept towards the room of the merchant, and over the feet of the merchant there was lying a curved sword, and the tray by the side of the merchant held nine purses of gold."
  3. "Now at the gate of the city there was seated one who was a leper."

Usually, I attach a question tag to the sentence, but in these cases it sounds a little bit odd to me to say "Many other mirrors are there, aren't there?". I expect something like "aren't they"... Besides, I am puzzled by the inversion of verb and complement (if it is really an existential) in the first quote and by the participles lying and seated in the other two. Well, any contribution will be enlightening. Thanks in advance.

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  • It's about a house, used as a metaphor. So anything locational is automatically existential as well, semantically. Syntactically, Wilde has been very clever in making the use of there ambiguous in these 3 sentences. You can't tell whether there is sposta be a reverse-inverted dummy there, or whether it's an ordinary locative adverb, which amplifies the metaphoric equation. Jan 22 at 15:01
  • Discussing how something should be classified tends to be a waste of time if it is not clear what the purpose of the classification is. So, what hinges on whether these sentences are classifies as existential? Why does it matter?
    – jsw29
    Jan 22 at 16:37
  • Hi, @jsw29! Thanks for your observations. Actually, those sentences are part of my research on translation of Wilde's existentials into Brazilian Portuguese. Jan 26 at 13:32

1 Answer 1

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You have done well to spot the discrepancy.

"Many other mirrors are there, but they are mirrors of Opinion."

with its inversion, is archaic and over-formal language, and was even when it was written. The meaning is:

"There are many other mirrors, but they are mirrors of Opinion."

We only know that this is archaic language from context. There are not actually many other mirrors present in the place indicated, which would be the meaning in modern English, and also the author uses some other archaic terms of phrase. I had to go and read the passage to be sure of this.

The "there" is in fact existential, although in normal modern language it would not be.

(Incidentally, when speaking this sentence you would put the emphasis on the "are" and not the "there" to indicate the meaning

Many other mirrors are there

means many other mirrors exist, and

Many other mirrors are there

means many other mirrors are in that place.)

For the other sentences, the there is still existential.

there was lying a curved sword

means the same as

there was a curved sword lying

and

there was seated one who was a leper

means the same as

there was a leper seated

(The "one who was" also adds an old-fashioned feel to the sentence)

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  • Nice answer! :)
    – psmears
    Jan 21 at 22:49
  • This was archaic language even in 1891, when it was written.
    – Peter
    Jan 22 at 0:59
  • The sword example is more likely a presentational construction not an existential one - best comparator: "A sword was lying over ..." Although there seems to be no hard and fast way of distinguishing the two in this particular case. Jan 22 at 22:30
  • Thanks for your clear explanation, DJClayworth. It helped me a lot! Jan 26 at 14:01

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