Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis

Many linguists, including Noam Chomsky, contend that language in the sense we ordinary think of it, in the sense that people in Germany speak German, is a historical or social or political notion, rather than a scientific one. For example, German and Dutch are much closer to one another than various dialects of Chinese are. But the rough, commonsense divisions between languages will suffice for our purposes.

There are around 5000 languages in use today, and each is quite different from many of the others. Differences are especially pronounced between languages of different families, e.g., between Indo-European languages like English and Hindi and Ancient Greek, on the one hand, and non-Indo-European languages like Hopi and Chinese and Swahili, on the other.

Many thinkers have urged that large differences in language lead to large differences in experience and thought. They hold that each language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views, so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways. This view is sometimes called the Whorf-hypothesis or the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, after the linguists who made if famous. But the label linguistic relativity, which is more common today, has the advantage that makes it easier to separate the hypothesis from the details of Whorf's views, which are an endless subject of exegetical dispute (Gumperz and Levinson, 1996, contains a sampling of recent literature on the hypothesis).

The suggestion that different languages carve the world up in different ways, and that as a result their speakers think about it differently has a certain appeal. But questions about the extent and kind of impact that language has on thought are empirical questions that can only be settled by empirical investigation. And although linguistic relativism is perhaps the most popular version of descriptive relativism, the conviction and passion of partisans on both sides of the issue far outrun the available evidence. As usual in discussions of relativism, it is important to resist all-or-none thinking. The key question is whether there are interesting and defensible versions of linguistic relativism between those that are trivially true (the Babylonians didn't have a counterpart of the word ‘telephone’, so they didn't think about telephones) and those that are dramatic but almost certainly false (those who speak different languages see the world in completely different ways).
A Preliminary Statement of the Hypothesis

Interesting versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis embody two claims:

Linguistic Diversity:
Languages, especially members of quite different language families, differ in important ways from one another.

Linguistic Influence on Thought:
The structure and lexicon of one's language influences how one perceives and conceptualizes the world, and they do so in a systematic way.

Together these two claims suggest that speakers of quite different languages think about the world in quite different ways. There is a clear sense in which the thesis of linguistic diversity is uncontroversial. Even if all human languages share many underlying, abstract linguistic universals, there are often large differences in their syntactic structures and in their lexicons. The second claim is more controversial, but since linguistic forces could shape thought in varying degrees, it comes in more and less plausible forms.
1. History of the Hypothesis

Like many other relativistic themes, the hypothesis of linguistic relativity became a serious topic of discussion in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century Germany, particularly in the work of Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). It was later defended by thinkers as diverse as Ernst Cassirer and Peter Winch. Thus Cassirer tells us that

...the distinctions which here are taken for granted, the analysis of reality in terms of things and processes, permanent and transitory aspects, objects and actions, do not precede language as a substratum of given fact, but that language itself is what initiates such articulations, and develops them in its own sphere (1946, p. 12).

But the hypothesis came to prominence though the work of Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf. Indeed, it is often called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or simply the Whorf hypothesis.

There are connections among some of these writers; for example, Sapir wrote his M.A. thesis on Herder's Origin of Language. Still, this is a remarkably diverse group of thinkers who often arrived at their views by different routes, and so it is not surprising that the linguistic relativity hypothesis comes in a variety of forms.
Sapir and Whorf

It will help to see why the linguistic relativity hypothesis captivated so many thinkers if we briefly consider the more arresting claims of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Sapir was an American anthropological linguist who, like so many anthropologists of his day, was a student of Franz Boas. He was also the teacher of Whorf, a businessman and amateur linguist.

Unlike earlier partisans of linguistic relativism, Sapir and Whorf based their claims on first-hand experience of the cultures and languages they described, which gave their accounts a good deal of immediacy. I will quote a few of the purpler passages to convey the flavor of their claims, for this was partly what galvanized the imagination of so many readers.
In a paper published in 1929 Sapir tells us:

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection (1929, p. 209).

Our language affects how we perceive things:

Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose. …We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (p. 210).

But the differences don't end with perception:

The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached (p. 209).

The linguistic relativity hypothesis grained its widest audience through the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose collected writings became something of a relativistic manifesto.

Whorf presents a moving target, with most of his claims coming in both extreme and in more cautious forms. Debate continues about his considered views, but there is little doubt that his bolder claims, unimpeded by caveats or qualifications, were better suited to captivate his readers than more timid claims would have been.

When languages are similar, Whorf tells us, there is little likelihood of dramatic cognitive differences. But languages that differ markedly from English and other Western European languages (which Whorf calls, collectively, “Standard Average European” or SAE) often do lead their speakers to have very different worldviews. Thus

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. …The relativity of all conceptual systems, ours included, and their dependence upon language stand revealed (1956, p. 214f, italics added).

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds--and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds (p. 213).

…no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation even while he thinks himself most free (p. 214).

In fairness it must be stressed that these passages come from a single essay, “Science and Linguistics,” of 1940, and in other places Whorf's tone is often more measured. But not always; elsewhere he also says thing like

…users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world (1956, p. 221).

And in yet a third essay “facts are unlike to speakers whose language background provides for unlike formulation of them” (1956, p. 235).

The passages from Sapir and Whorf bristle with metaphors of coercion: our thought is “at the mercy” of our language, it is “constrained” by it; no one is free to describe the world in a neutral way; we are “compelled” to read certain features into the world (p. 262). The view that language completely determines how we think is often called linguistic determinism. Hamann and Herder sometimes seem to equate language with thought, and in these moods, at least, they came close to endorsing this view.
1.1 Linguistic Relativism and Metaphysics

Some writers have linked these themes directly to issues in metaphysics. For example Graham (1989, Appendix 2) argues that there are vast differences among human languages and that many of the concepts or categories (e.g., physical object, causation, quantity) writers like Aristotle and Kant and Strawson held were central, even indispensable, to human thought, are nothing more than parochial shadows cast by the structure of Indo-European languages. These notions, it is said, have no counterparts in many non-Indo-European languages like Chinese. If this is so, then a fairly strong version of the linguistic relativity hypothesis might be true, but the thesis hasn't been backed with strong empirical evidence and the most common views today lie at the opposite end of the spectrum. Indeed, Whorf himself held a similar view:

[Western] Science …has not yet freed itself from the illusory necessities of common logic which are only at bottom necessities of grammatical pattern in Western Aryan grammar; [e.g.,] necessities for substances which are only necessities for substantives in certain sentence positions …(1956, pp. 269-270).

It is worth noting, finally, that although Whorf was certainly a descriptive relativist he was not a normative relativist. He believed that some languages gave rise to more accurate worldviews than others. Indeed, he thought that the Hopi worldview was superior in various ways to that of speakers of Indo-European languages (e.g., 1956, p. 55, p. 262).
2. The Many Versions of Linguistic Relativism

Any serious discussion of the linguistic relativity hypothesis requires us to answer three questions

1. Which aspects of language influence which aspects of thought in some systematic way?
2. What form does that influence take?
3. How strong is that influence?

For example, certain features of syntax or of the lexicon might exert a causal influence on certain aspects of visual perception (e.g., on which colors we can discriminate), classification (e.g., on how we sort things by their color), or long-term memory (e.g., on which differences among colors we remember most accurately) in clearly specifiable ways. If there is such an influence we would also like to know what mechanisms mediate it, but until we have clearer answers to the first three questions, we are not well positioned to answer this.

Human languages are flexible and extensible, so most things that can be said in one can be approximated in another; if nothing else, words and phrases can be borrowed (Schadenfreude, je ne sais quoi). But what is easy to say in one language may be harder to say in a second, and this may make it easier or more natural or more common for speakers of the first language to think in a certain way than for speakers of the second language to do so. A concept or category may be more available in some linguistic communities than in others (e.g., Brown, 1956, pp. 307ff). In short, the linguistic relativity hypothesis comes in stronger and weaker forms, depending on the hypothesized forms and the hypothesized strength of the hypothesized influence.

Various aspects of language might affect cognition.

Languages can differ in their grammar or syntax. To take a simple example, typical word order may vary. In English, the common order is subject, verb, object. In Japanese it is subject, object, verb. In Welsh, verb, subject, object. Languages can differ in whether they make a distinction between intransitive verbs and adjectives. And there are many subtler sorts of grammatical difference as well. It should be noted that grammar here does not mean the prescriptive grammar we learned in grammar school, but the syntactic structure of a language; in this sense, a grammar comprises a set of rules (or some equivalent device) that can generate all and only the sentences of a given language.

Different languages have different lexicons (vocabularies), but the important point here is that the lexicons of different languages may classify things in different ways. For example, the color lexicons of some languages segment the color spectrum at different places.

Different languages have different semantic features (over and above differences in lexical semantics)

Different languages employ different metaphors or employ them in different ways.

It is increasingly clear that context plays a vital role in the use and understanding of language, and it is possible that differences in the way speakers of different languages use their languages in concrete settings affects their mental life.

For the most part discussions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis have focused on grammar and lexicon as independent variables. Thus, many of Whorf's claims, e.g., his claims about the way Hopi thought about time, were based on (what he took to be) large-scale differences between Hopi and Standard Average European that included grammatical and lexical differences (e.g., 1956, p. 158). Subsequence research by Ekkehart Malotki (e.g., 1983) and others suggests that Whorf's more dramatic claims were false, but the important point here is that the most prominent versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis involved large-scale features of language.
Language might influence many different aspects of thought. Most empirical work has focused, appropriately enough, on those aspects that are easiest to assess without relying on language. This is important, since we otherwise risk finding influences of one aspect of language on some related aspect of language, rather than on some aspect of thought. Commonly studied cognitive variables include perceptual discrimination, availability in memory, and classification.
2.1 Testing the Linguistic Relativity Hypotheses

In light of the vast literature on linguistic relativity hypotheses, one would expect that a good deal of careful experimental work had been done on the topic. It hasn't. Often the only evidence cited in favor of such hypotheses is to point to a difference between two languages and assert that it adds up to a difference in modes of thought. But this simply assumes what needs to be shown, namely that such linguistic differences give rise to cognitive differences. On the other hand, refutations of the hypothesis often target implausibly extreme versions of it or proceed as though refutations of it in one domain (e.g., color language and color cognition) show that it is false across the board.
2.2 Many Versions of the Hypothesis have not been Tested

A linguistic relativity hypothesis says that some particular aspect of language influences some particular aspect of cognition. Many different aspects of language could, for all we know, influence many different aspects of cognition. This means that a study showing that some particular aspect of language (e.g., the color lexicon of a language) does (or does not) influence some particular aspect of cognition (e.g., recognition memory of colors) does not tell us whether other aspects of language (e.g., the lexicon for spatial relations) influence other aspects of cognition (e.g., spatial reasoning). It does not even tell us whether the single aspect of language we focused on affects any aspects of thought besides the one we studied, or whether other aspects of language influence the single aspect of thought we examined.

The point here is not merely a theoretical one. When the mind is seen as all of a piece, whether it's the result of stepping through Piaget's universal stages of development, the output of universal learning mechanisms, or the operation of a general-purpose computer, confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis in one area (e.g., color) might bear on its status in other areas. But there is increasing evidence that the mind is, to at least some degree, modular, with different cognitive modules doing domain specific work (e.g., parsing syntax, recognizing faces) and processing different kinds of information in different kinds of ways. If this is right, there is less reason to expect that findings about the influence of language on one aspect of cognition will generalize to other aspects.
The Upshot

Only a handful of versions of the claim that linguistic feature X influences cognitive feature Y in way Z have ever been tested. Some can doubtless be ruled out on the basis of common sense knowledge or previous investigation. But many remain that have yet to be studied. Moreover, those that have been studied often have not been studied with the care they deserve. A few have, though, and we will now turn to them.
Example: Color Language and Color Cognition

Much of the most rigorous investigation of the linguistic relativity hypothesis involves color language and color cognition. In the 1950s and 60s, this was an area where linguistic relativity seemed quite plausible. On the one hand, there is nothing in the physics of light (e.g., in facts about surface spectral reflectances) that suggests drawing boundaries between colors at one place rather than another; in this sense our segmentations of the spectrum are arbitrary. On the one hand, it was well known that different languages had color terms that segmented the color spectrum at different places. So since nothing in the physics of color could determine how humans thought about color, it seemed natural to hypothesis that color cognition followed the grooves laid down by color language.

Color was also an auspicious object of study, because investigators could use Munsell color chips (a widely used, standardized set of chips of different colors) or similar stimulus materials with subjects in quite different locations, thus assuring that whatever differences they found in their dependent variables really did involve the same thing, color (as anchored in the chips), rather than something more nebulous.

Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's work (1969) on basic color terms did much to raise the quality of empirical work on the linguistic relativity hypothesis. And together with much subsequent work it strongly suggests that the strongest, across-the-board versions of the linguistic relativity hypothesis are false when it comes to color language and color cognition. We now know that colors may be a rather special case, however, for although there is nothing in the physics of color that suggests particular segmentations of the spectrum, the opponent-process theory of color vision, now well confirmed, tells us that there are neurophysiological facts about human beings that influence many of the ways in which we perceive colors. We don't know of anything comparable innate mechanisms that would channel thought about social traits or biological classification of diseases in similarly deep grooves. There may well be cross-cultural similarities in the ways human beings think about these things, but we can't conclude this from the work on color.
3. Innateness and Linguistic Universals

The linguist Noam Chomsky has argued for almost half a century that human beings could only learn natural languages if they had a good deal of innate linguistic equipment to guide their way. He has characterized this equipment in different ways over the years, but the abiding theme is that without it children could never get from the sparse set of utterances they hear to the rich linguistic ability they achieve.
3.1 Poverty of the Stimulus Arguments

In just a few years all normal children acquire the language that is spoken by their family and others around them. They acquire a very complex and virtually unbounded ability to distinguish sentences from non-sentences and to understand and utter a virtually unlimited number of sentences they have never thought of before. The child acquires this ability on the basis of the utterances she hears and the feedback (rarely in the form of corrections) she receives. The problem is that the child's data here are very unsystematic and sparse compared to the systematic and nearly unbounded linguistic competence the child quickly acquires.

Hence, the argument continues, the child needs help to get from this impoverished input to the rich output (the acquisition of a grammar of a complex natural language), and this help can only be provided by something innate that constrains and guides the child in her construction of the grammar. The point is quite general: if the input, or data stream, is exiguous then (barring incredible luck) it is only possible for someone to arrive at the right theory about the data if they have some built-in inductive biases, some predispositions to form one kind of theory rather than another. And since any child can learn any human language, the innate endowment must put constraints on which of the countless logically possible languages are humanly possible.

If the features of human languages are limited by such innate, language-acquisition mechanisms, there is less scope for the large differences among languages that the more extreme linguistic relativists have imagined. But might linguistic universals leave room for less extreme versions of linguistic relativism that are still interesting? That depends on what linguistic devices there are and on their relationships to other cognitive mechanisms.
3.2 Modularity

From the perspective of nativist accounts of language, many of the questions about linguistic relativity boil down to questions about the informational encapsulation of mental modules. To say that a module is encapsulated means that other parts of the mind cannot influence its inner workings (though they can supply it with inputs and use its outputs). What are the implications of this for the linguistic relativist's claim that a person's language can exert a dramatic influence on his perception and thought?

The answer may be different for perception, on the one hand, and the higher mental processes, on the other. For example Jerry Fodor (1984) argues that there is a module (or modules) for visual perception and that information from other parts of the mind cannot influence it in the way that many psychologists have supposed. For example, even though I know that the two lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion

missing text, please inform
Müller-Lyer Illusion

are the same length, I cannot help seeing the line on the left as longer than the line on the right. I know the lengths are the same, but my visual module (or models) does not. It is encapsulated; this information can't get through to it, so it can't influence how I see the figure. If this is so, then linguistic information could not penetrate any vision modules, and so versions of linguistic relativism which hold (as most do) that our language can influence how we see things is wrong.

By contrast, Fodor holds that there is no special module for higher mental processes and, indeed, that we are a long way from having any account of how thinking and reasoning work (e.g., 2000). If this is right, then for all we know now, some aspects of linguistic relativism could be right. The workings of various linguistic modules might influence thought in interesting ways.

It bears stressing that many of the issues involving cognitive architecture are vigorously contested. Among other things, not all champions of modules see them as Fodor does. According to them what is special about visual modules may just be that they process visual information, not that they lack access to other kinds of information (indeed, top-down aspects of perception suggest that they often do have such access). If this is so, there is more room for language to influence perception and other cognitive processes than there is if modules are tightly insulated.

The dust here hasn't begun to settle, but one general moral is clear. If at least moderately strong nativist and modular views of the mind are on the right track--and there is now certainly some reason to think that they are--then many of the empirical issues about linguistic relativity will translate into issues concerning the ways in which various modules can influence one another.
4. Morals for other Independent Variables: Modularity and Encapsulation

We have gone into detail about the linguistic relativity hypothesis, because the main lessons here carry over to the study of the impact of other variables, e.g., culture, on cognition. Some of these emerged above; others are obvious once they are noted. They are

1. Questions about the impact of a variable on cognition are empirical and causal questions.
2. Such questions can only be answered with care once we specify which aspects of an independent variable, say culture, influence which aspects of thought and what form that influence takes.
3. Such hypotheses can vary greatly in specificity, strength, and scope.
4. Testing a specific version of the hypothesis requires a combination of skills, including those of a good ethnographer, linguist, and experimental psychologist.
5. A comparison of more than two cultures is needed to draw any firm conclusions.
6. The truth of specific hypotheses may turn on issues involving the modularity of mind and the degree of modular encapsulation.
7. If the mind is highly modular, finding an influence of one aspect of language or culture of some aspect of cognition may tell us little about the influence of other aspects of language or culture on cognition.

These lessons are easier with some variables than with others. It is probably easiest with some aspects of language, because a good deal is now known about many of the languages of the world. It will often be more difficult in the case of culture, where things are more difficult to pin down than they are in the case of language. And it will be virtually impossible when history is the relevant variable; here much more speculative interpretations of historical documents may be the best we can do. But the basic point remains. Relativistic claims are empirical causal claims and they can only be settled by empirical evidence.

It is not always easy to strike the proper balance when thinking about empirical work on these matters. On the one hand it is useful to cultivate an “it-can't-be-that-simple” reflex for use when reading an isolated study or two. But on the other hand empirical investigation is the only thing that can answer many of the difficult questions about the complex, entangled processes of language, culture, and thought.

The Vocabulary of Ontology


"Any linguistic study of the Greek verb be is essentially conditioned, and perhaps ultimately motivated, by the philosophic career of this word. We know what an extraordinary career it has been. It seems fair to say, with Benveniste, that the systematic development of a concept of Being in Greek philosophy from Parmenides to Aristotle, and then in a more mechanical way from the Stoics to Plotinus, relies upon the pre-existing disposition of the language to make a very general and diversified use of the verb einai. Furthermore, insofar as the notions expressed by on, einai, and ousia in Greek underlie the doctrines of Being, substance, essence, and existence in Latin, in Arabic, and in modern philosophy from Descartes to Heidegger and perhaps to Quine, we may say that the usage of the Greek verb be studied here forms the historical basis for the ontological tradition of the West, as the very term "ontology" suggests.
At the same time it is generally recognized that this wide range of uses for the single verb eimi in Greek reflects a state of affairs which is "peculiar to Indo-European languages, and by no means a universal situation or a necessary condition." (1) The present monograph series on "the verb 'be' and its synonyms" shows just how far the languages of the earth may differ from one another in their expression for existence, for predication with nouns or with adjectives, for locative predication, and so forth. The topic of be can itself scarcely be defined except by reference to Indo-European verbs representing the root *es-. The question naturally arises whether an historical peculiarity of this kind can be of any fundamental importance for general linguistics and, even more pressing, whether a concept reflecting the Indo-European use of *es- can be of any general significance in philosophy."

(1) Émile Benveniste - "Catégories de pensée et catégories de langue" (1958) - in: Problèmes de linguistique générale - (Paris , 1966) p. 73
From: Charles H. Kahn - The verb 'Be' in ancient Greek - Dordrecht, Reidel (1973) p. 1 (Reprinted Indianapolis, Hackett, 2003 with a new introduction)

"When the early Greek thinkers initiated philosophical speculation, the very first question they asked themselves was: What stuff is reality made of? Taken in itself, this question was strikingly indicative of the most fundamental need of the human mind. To understand something is for us to conceive it as identical in nature with something else that we already know. To know the nature of reality at large is therefore for us to understand that each and every one of the innumerable things which make up the universe is, at bottom, identical in nature with each and every other thing. Prompted by this unshakable conviction, unshakable because rooted in the very essence of human understanding, the early Greek thinkers successively attempted to reduce nature in general to water, then to air, then to fire, until one of them at last hit upon the right answer to the question, by saying that the primary stuff which reality is made of is being.
The answer was obviously correct, for it is not at once evident that, in the last analysis, air and fire are nothing else than water, or that, conversely, water itself is nothing else than either air or fire; but it cannot be doubted that, whatever else they may be, water, air and fire have in common at least this property, that they are. Each of them is a being, and, since the same can be said of everything else, we cannot avoid the conclusion that being is the only property certainly shared in common by all that which is. Being, then, is the fundamental and ultimate element of reality.
When he made this discovery, Parmenides of Elea at once carried metaphysical speculation to what was always to remain one of its ultimate limits; but, at the same time, he entangled himself in what still is for us one of the worst metaphysical difficulties. It had been possible for Parmenides' predecessors to identify nature with water, fire or air, without going to the trouble of defining the meaning of those terms. If I say that everything is water, everybody will understand what I mean, but if I say that everything is being, I can safely expect to be asked: what is being? For indeed we all know many beings, but what being itself is, or what it is to be, is an extremely obscure and intricate question. Parmenides could hardly avoid telling us what sort of reality being itself is. In point of fact, he was bold enough to raise the problem and clear-sighted enough to give it an answer which still deserves to hold our attention."
From: Étienne Gilson - Being and some philosophers - Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies - Second edition, 1952, pp. 6-7

In a first acceptation, the word being is a noun. As such, it signifies either d being (that is, the substance, nature, and essence of anything existent), or being itself, a property common to all that which can rightly be said to be. In a second acceptation, the same word is the present participle of the verb 'to be.' As a verb, it no longer signifies something that is, nor even existence in general, but rather the very act whereby any given reality actually is, or exists. Let us call this act a 'to be,' in contradistinction to what is commonly called 'a being.' It appears at once that, at least to the mind, the relation of 'to be' to 'being' is not a reciprocal one. 'Being' is conceivable, 'to be' is not. We cannot possibly conceive an 'is' except as belonging to some thing that is, or exists. But the reverse is not true. Being is quite conceivable apart from actual existence; so much so that the very first and the most universal of all the distinctions in the realm of being is that which divides it into two classes, that of the real and that of the possible. Now what is it to conceive a being as merely possible, if not to conceive it apart from actual existence? A 'possible' is a being which has not yet received, or which has already lost, its own to be. Since being is thinkable apart from actual existence, whereas actual existence is not thinkable apart from being, philosophers will simply yield to one of the fundamental facilities of the human mind by positing being minus actual existence as the first principle of metaphysics."
From: Étienne Gilson - Being and some philosophers - Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies - Second edition, 1952, pp. 2-3

"If for us Being is just an empty word and an evanescent meaning, then we must at least try to grasp fully this last remnant of a connection. So we ask, to begin with: 1. What sort of word is this anyway --Being -- as regards its formal character as a word? 2. What does linguistics tell us about the originary meaning of this word?To put this in scholarly terms, we are asking 1) about the grammar and 2) about the etymology of the word Being.
The grammatical analysis of words is neither exclusively nor primarily concerned with their written or spoken form. It takes these formal elements as clues to definite directions and differences in direction in the possible meanings of words; these directions dictate how the words can be used within a sentence or within a larger discursive structure. (...)We can easily see that un the formation of the word Being, the decisive precursor is the infinitive 'to be.' This form of the verb is transformed into a substantive. The character of our word Being, as a word, is determined, accordingly, by three grammatical forms: verb, infinitive, and substantive. Thus our first task is to understand the meaning of these grammatical forms. Of the three we have named, verb and substantive are among those that were first recognized at the start of Western grammar and that even today are taken as the fundamental forms of words and of language in general. And so, with the question about the essence of the substantive and of the verb, we find ourselves in the midst of the question about the essence of language. For the question of whether the primordial form of the word is the noun (substantive) or the verb coincides with the question of the originary character of speech and speaking. In turn, this question entails the question of the origin of language. We cannot start by immediately going into this question. We are forced onto a detour. We will restrict ourselves in what follows to that grammatical form which provides the transitional phase in the development of the verbal substantive: the infinitive (to go, to come, to fall, to sing, to hope, to be, etc.).
What does "infinitive" mean? This term is an abbreviation of the complete one: modus infinitivus, the mode of unboundedness, of indeterminateness, regarding the manner in which a verb exercises and indicates the function and direction of its meaning. (...).
Above all we must consider the fact that the definitive differentiation of the fundamental forms of words (noun and verb) in the Greek form of onoma and rhema was worked out and first established in the most immediate and intimate connection with the conception and interpretation of Being that has been definitive for the entire West. This inner bond between these two happenings is accessible to us unimpaired and is carried out in full clarity in Plato's Sophist. The terms onoma and rhema were already known before Plato, of course. But at that time, and still in Plato, they were understood as terms denoting the use of words as a whole. Onoma means the linguistic name as distinguished from the named person or thing, and it also means the speaking of a word, which was later conceived grammatically as rhema. And rhema in turn means the spoken word, speech; the rhetor is the speaker, the orator, who uses not only verbs but also onomata in the narrower meaning of the substantive.
The fact that both terms originally governed an equally wide domain is important for our later point that the much-discussed question in linguistics of whether the noun or the verb represents the primordial form of the word is not a genuine question. This pseudo-question first arose in the context of a developed grammar rather than from a vision of the essence of language, an essence not yet dissected by grammar."
From: Martin Heidegger - Introduction to metaphysics - New translation by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt - New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 55-60 (notes omitted).


"On the other hand, by means of the so-called noun clause the Hebrew language is much better able to express the 'static' or 'that which is' in its logical sense than the Greek and our modern languages permit with their copula and their verbs of inaction. We shall define the noun clause in agreement with Gesenius-Kautzsch, in order to be able to understand the 'being' expressed in it:Every sentence, the subject as well as the predicate of which is a noun or noun equivalent is called a noun clause, while in a verbal clause the predicate is a finite verb. This distinction is indispensable for more subtle understanding of Hebrew syntax (as of Semitics in general) because it is not merely a matter of an external, formal distinction in meaning but of one that goes to the depths of the language. The noun clause, the predicate of which is a substantive, offers something fixed, not active, in short, a 'being'; the verbal clause on the other hand asserts something moving and in flux, an event and an action. The noun clause with a participial predicate can also assert something moving and in flux, except that here the event and action is fixed as something not active and enduring, as opposed to the verbal clause. For our purpose, it is not necessary to discuss all the various kinds of noun classes, and in particular not those with participial predicates which should logically be considered as verbal clauses."
(1) Friedrich Heinrich Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842) and Emil Friedrich Kautzsch (1841-1910) - Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar. Edited and enlarged by E. Kautzsch Translated and revised from German 28th edition by Arthur Ernest Cowley. 2nd edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910 - § 140 [Reprinted by Oxford University Press in 1995]
From: Thorleif Boman - Hebrew thought compared with Greek - English updated translation by Jules Moreau - Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960; reprinted by W. W. Norton & Company, 2002 pp. 35-36. (some notes omitted). Original edition: Das hebräische Denken im Vergleich mit dem griechischen - Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1952 (second revised edition 1954)

"What is the basic fact of 'being' for the Israelites will result from the analysis of the verb hayah that follows.
A) The verb hayah: We must devote special attention to this verb not only because it occurs most frequently but also because the verbal problems discussed above are concentrated in this verb and appear in it in their most difficult form. (...) The most important meanings and uses of our verb 'to be' (and its equivalents in other Indo-European languages) are: (1) to express being or existence; (2) to serve as a copula. Now, as we have shown above, Hebrew and the other Semitic languages do not need a copula because of the noun clause. As a general rule, therefore, it may be said that hayah is not used as a copula; real or supposed exceptions to this rule will be cited later. The characteristic mark of hayah, in distinction from our verb 'to be', is that it is a true verb with full verbal force. The majority of formal considerations as well as the actual ones lead to this conclusion:
I. The peculiarity of emphasizing the verbal idea by use of the infinitive absolute before finite verbs;
II. the occurrence of the passive form Niph'al;
III. its frequent occurrence in parallel with other verbs whose verbal force is beyond doubt; this is so frequent an occurrence that a few examples will suffice: Jahveh hurled a great wind, and a mighty tempest was ( Jonah 1.4); God created (made, spoke) and the corresponding thing was ( Gen. 1.3, 9, 11); its parallel use with qûm = 'be realized' (Isa. 7.7; 14.24); the messengers of the king command the prophet Micaiah to prophesy safety and victory, 'Let thy word be as the word of one of them (i.e. the prophets of good fortune)', ( I Kings 22.13).
The meaning of hayah is apparently manifold; hayah has thus been considered to some extent a general word which can mean everything possible and therefore designates nothing characteristic. Closer examination reveals, however, that this is not the case. It is therefore necessary to establish the many meanings and shades of meaning of hayah and to find their inner connexion. We shall use first the results of Ratschow (1) who has examined the occurrences of hayah in the Old Testament with a thoroughness hardly to be excelled and in whose work is to be found extensive evidence. He found three principal meanings: 'to become', 'to be', and 'to effect'; but these are related internally and form a unity. In the main this will be right, and it agrees with our understanding of Hebrew thought; we must object, however, to details."
(1) Carl H. Ratschow - Werden und Wirken, Eine Untersuchung des wortes hajah als Beitrag zur Wirklichkeitserfassung des Alten Testaments ("Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft", 70) - Berlin, A. Töpelmann, 1941.
From: Thorleif Boman - Hebrew thought compared with Greek - English updated translation by Jules Moreau - Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960; reprinted by W. W. Norton & Company, 2002 pp. 38-39. (notes omitted). Original edition: Das hebräische Denken im Vergleich mit dem griechischen - Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1952 (second revised edition 1954).

"In modern biblical theology it is commonly held that the Israelites were not interested in 'existence' as distinct from active existence, action or life; and correspondingly that the language has no means of expressing mere existence. The same seems to be the opinion of Boman, who several times says that a static being is a nothing to the Israelites.
It was mentioned earlier that 'the verb 'to be' as copula or existential was one of the subjects of the questionnaire circulated by Basson and O'Connor and reported on in their article. On this question they got an answer, and they report as follows: 'Semitic languages have in general no copula, but Hebrew and Assyrian both have a special word for "exists" '.1 Does this contradict the opinion I have just described?There are at least three linguistic phenomena which are relevant to the discussion of 'to be' in Hebrew:(a) The ordinary type of sentence where the copula 'is' is used in English, such as 'David is the king', 'he is the man', has no verb as copula in Hebrew. Hebrew uses the nominal sentence, which is a mere juxtaposition of the two elements 'David' and 'the king'. The nominal sentence is a very well-established feature of Semitic syntax. A common addition is the pronoun 'he' or 'she' introduced after the subject, giving the sentence 'David-he-the-king'. Since this pronoun is not indispensable and is indeed very frequently not so inserted, I think it can be neglected in a discussion of the copula.
(b) The verb hayah 'to be'. This is discussed at length by Boman, and I shall later make some remarks about his treatment of it. For the present we have to make clear only the most important fact for the co-ordination of hayah with other terms corresponding to English 'to be': it is only at certain points that this verb coincides in function with 'to be as copula or existential'. In a very large number of its occurrences it will be well translated by 'come to be' or 'come to pass'. Or, conversely, English sentences using 'is' in the present tense either as copula or as existential will seldom be rendered into Hebrew with hayah; they will much more normally use the nominal sentence, or the particle yel 'there is'. We are not on the other hand justified in removing hayah altogether from the sphere of what is relevant to English 'is' and making it equivalent (say) to English 'become'. For example, a statement like 'the earth is waste' will have the nominal sentence, and no verb; but if we put it in the past and say 'the earth was waste (and is no longer so)', then the verb hayahis used, as in Gen. I: 2. It would be quite perverse to insist on the meaning 'became' here, and so a certain overlap with 'be' has to be observed. In fact the sense of 'come to he' or 'come to pass' is not to be explained by going over to 'become' as the basic sense, but by noticing that very frequent uses have an ingressive element which with a verb meaning 'be' will lead to a sense roughly of 'come to be' or 'come to pass'.
(c) The word yeš; 'there is' and the opposite 'ayin or 'en 'there is not'. This is of course the 'special word for exists ' mentioned in the report above. Boman in his discussion of 'being' does not mention this frequent and important word at all. Moreover, a considerable complication is introduced into the discussion by this word. Basson and O'Connor (1) are right in saying that it is a 'special word for 'exists', in the sense that it is not normally used as a copula in sentences like 'David is the king'. You use it in sentences like 'There is a dish on the table' or 'There is a God in heaven'.
The complication to which I refer is that this word, which we might describe rather vaguely as a particle, is certainly not a verb, has some of the characteristics of the noun and may be translated 'being, existence' in a rather over-literal rendering.
"Now another point of some importance can be illustrated from this word. The point I wish to make is that the question whether the Israelites laid any emphasis on 'mere' existence as distinct from active existence of some kind is a different one from the question whether their language had words that could express 'mere' existence. The word yeš can be well translated by 'there is', and as in English 'there is' we press too far if we try to find in it the expression of 'mere' existence. In fact many cases which use it have also some locality indicated: 'There is bread in my house', 'There is Yahweh in this place'. This is no doubt the 'existential' sense of 'is' as against the 'copula' type. Nevertheless 'exists' would not be a good translation in these sentences, since we would not normally say 'Bread exists in my house' or 'There exists a dish on the table'. In other words, the 'existential' use of the word 'is' does not coincide semantically with 'exists' and does not raise the problem of 'mere' existence, especially when a locality is indicated."

(1) A. H. Basson, and D. J. O'Connor - Language and philosophy: some suggestions for an empirical approach - Philosophy, XXII (1947) p. 59.

From: James Barr - The semantics of biblical language - Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1961 - pp. 58-61 (some notes omitted).

"einai: to be, to exist; to on: that which is, the real; ousia: being, essence. This verb caused great philosophical difficulty to the Greeks and consequential difficulties for us. Much of the trouble arises from the fact that one can say Platôn esti - Plato exists - or Platôn esti philosophos -- Plato is a philosopher - making use of the same verb, whereas in English `Plato is' is at best an unidiomatic way of saying that he exists. This double use led some earlier Greek philosophers to think that a sentence beginning Platôn ouk esti... must deny the existence of Plato even if the next word is barbaros. This leads to translation difficulties for us, as for instance with the sentence ei ti phaneiê hoion hama on to kai mê on, to toiouton metaxu keisthai tou eilikrinôs ontos kai tou pantôs mê ontos(Plato Rep. 478d), which might be translated either as 'if something should appear such as both to have and not to have a certain predicate [we said that] such a thing would lie between being clearly of that sort and not being so at all' or as `if something should appear such that it simultaneously exists and does not exist [we said that] such a thing would lie between clearly existing and not existing at all'. It was presumably these difficulties that led Parmenides to say such things as khrê to legein to noein t'eon emmenai esti gar einai, mêden d'ouk estin - that of which one can speak and think must be: for it is possible for it, but not for nothing, to be (Parmenides in Simplicius, Physics 117.4). In an impersonal use esti frequently means `it is possible' as in estin adikounta mêpô adikon einai - it is possible to do what is unjust without being an unjust person (Aristotle N.E. 1134a 17), and in the quotation from Parmenides above. There are also adverbial expressions such as estin hote, sometimes, and estin hôs, in some ways.".
"on: to on,in the widest sense, is everything that is and, as such, is contrasted with to mê on, that which is not; in a narrower use to on, sometimes called for clarity to ontôs on, the really real, is unchanging and imperishable and eternal, and is contrasted with the gignomenon that is changing and perishable. In the dispute between Parmenides and the atomists it is hard to doubt that to mê on as the non-existent is confused with empty space: oute gar an gnoiês to ge mê on: ou gar anuston -- you cannot know that which is not; it is impossible (Parmenides, fr. 2); ouden gar estin ê estai allo parex tou eontos -- nothing other than what is either is or will be (Parmenides, fr. 8). But Simplicius reports Leucippus as saying ouden mallon to on ê to mê on huparkhein -- there is that which is no more than that which is not (Simplicius, Physics 28.12); here to mê on seems to be the kenon, void; cf. the den of Democritus. In the narrower use, to men pantelôs on pantelôs gnôston -- the completely real is completely knowable (Plato Rep. 477a); ei gar panta to onta tou agathou ephietai, dêlon hoti to prôtôs agathon epekeina esti tôn ontôn -- for if everything that is aims at the good, it is clear that the primary good transcends things that are (Proclus, Elements of Theology 8); to gar houtôs on proteron têi phusei tou gignomenou esti - that which is in this [narrow] way is prior in its nature to the becoming (Simplicius, Physics 1337.4)."
From: James Opie Urmson - The Greek philosophical vocabulary - London, Duckworth 1990 pp. 49-50 and 117.

"on ónta (pl.): being, beings.
1. The question of the nature of being first arose in the context of Parmenides' series of logical dichotomies between being and nonbeing (me on): that which is, cannot not be; that which is not, cannot be, i.e., a denial of passage from being to nonbeing or genesis (q.v.; fr. 2) , and its corollary, a denial of change and motion (fr. 8, lines 26-33, 42-50; for the theological correlatives of this, see nous 2). Secondly, being is one and not many (fr. 8, lines 22-25) . And finally, the epistemological premiss: only being can be known or named; nonbeing cannot (fr. 3; fr. 8, line 34); see doxa. Being, in short, is a sphere (fr. 8, lines 42-4g) . Most of the later pre-Socratics denied this latter premiss (cf. stoicheion and atomon), as did Plato for whom the really real (to ontos on) were the plural eide, and who directed the latter half of the Parmenides (137b-166c) against it.
2. The solution to the nonbeing dilemma (for its epistemological solution, see doxa and heteron) and the key to the analysis of genesis began with Plato's positing of space (see hypodoche) in which genesis takes place, and which stands midway between true being and nonbeing (Tim. 52a-c). For Plato, as for Parmenides, absolute nonbeing is nonsense (Sophist 238c), but there is a relative grade illustrated not only by the Receptacle cited above, but by sensible things (aistheta) as well (Sophist 240b; Timaeus. 35a, 52c). Among the Platonic hierarchy of Forms, there is aneidos of being; indeed it is one of the most important Forms that pervade all the rest (Sophist 254b-d; compare this with the peculiar nature of on in Aristotle, Metaphysics 1003a) . Further, Plato distinguishes real beings (ontos onta) from those that have genesis, and in Timaeus 28a he works out an epistemological-ontological correlation: onta are known by thought (noesis) accompanied by a rational account (logos); generated beings are grasped by opinion (or judgment, see doxa) based on sensation (aisthesis).
3. Since being is the object of the science of metaphysics (Metaphysics 1031a) Aristotle's treatment of on is much more elaborate. The first distinction is between "being qua being" (to on he on), which is the object of metaphysics, and individual beings (onta), which are the objects of the other sciences. This is the view in Metaphysics 1003a, but Aristotle is not consistent on the point: elsewhere (see Metaphysics 1026a; Physics 192a, 194b; De an. 403b) he states that metaphysics studies being that is separate and unmoving (see theologia). Again, 'being' is peculiar in that it is defined not univocally or generically, but analogously through all the categories (Metaphysics 1003a) , and in this it is like 'one' (hen) (Metaphysics 1053b ) and 'good' (agathon) ( ibid. Nichomachean Ethics I, 1096b ) ; see katholou. There follows a basic distinction (ibid. 1017a-b): something 'is' either accidentally, or essentially, or epistemologically, or in the dichotomy act (energeia) / potency (dynamis). The epistemological 'being' (see doxa) is dealt with elsewhere ( see Metaphysics 1027b-1028a, 1051a-1152a), as is potency/act (see Metaphysics Theta passim), so Aristotle here concentrates his attention on what 'is' essentially. It is something that falls within the ten kategoriai (Metaphysics 1017a) and is, primarily, substance (ousia; ibid. 1028a-b). A somewhat different point of view emerges from Aristotle's breakdown of the various senses of nonbeing (me on) in Metaphysics 1069b and 1089a: something is not either as a negative proposition, i.e., a denial of one of the predicates, or as a false proposition, or finally, kata dynamin, i.e., by being something else only potentially but not actually. It is from this latter that genesis comes about ( see also dynamis, energeia, steresis) .
4. In the Plotinian universe the One (hen) is beyond being (Enneads V, 9, 3; compare Plato's description of the Good beyond Being in Republic 509b and see hyperousia). The realm of being begins on the level of nous since both being and nous are contained in nous (ibid. V, 5, 2; V, 9, 7). Nonbeing is treated in much the Platonic and Aristotelian fashion: matter (hyle) that is only a replica (eikon) of being is only quasi-being ( Enneads I, 8, 3). Philo, with his strongly developed feeling of divine transcendence (see hyperousia), restricts true being to God alone (Quod deterius potiori insidiari soleat. 44., 160) , arid introduces into the discussion the metaphysical interpretation of the famous phrase in Exodus 3, 14: 'I am who am'; see hypodoche, hyle, genesis."
From: Francis Edwards Peters - Greek philosophical terms. A historical lexicon - New York, New York University Press, 1967 pp. 141-142.

"There can be no doubt that Parmenides' Goddess's philosophy course is concerned with 'being.' But saying this is not saying anything. In Greek, as in Spanish [or English], 'to be' is a verb and, like any verb it can be used as a noun, and then we can speak of 'being' (used as a noun). But this verbal noun is essentially different in Greek than it is in other languages, and so we cannot ignore the problem. This specificity is one of the results of the flexibility of the Greek language, which permits all kinds of juggling. E. Benveniste wrote that "the linguistic structure of Greek created the predisposition for the notion 'to be' to have a philosophical vocation." (1) Indeed, the use of the verb 'to be' as a noun absolutely does not mean what Philosophers call 'being' (the noun). To use an infinitive as a noun in Spanish it must be preceded by an article, in this case 'el' ['the']. Then the infinitive 'ser"'['to be'] becomes 'el ser' ['the being'] used as a noun, in Greek 'tò eînai.' However, this formula never figured among the concerns of the Greek philosophers. No Greek philosopher who inquired into what today we might call 'the being of things,' or even 'certain types of beings,' including the supreme being, ever asked 'what is tò eînai?' literally 'what is being?' As we know, especially since the Aristotelian systemization, the formula used by all Greek philosophers to ask the question of being is tí esti tò ón (to eon in Parmenides), 'What is being?' 'Tò eon' is the present participle of the verb to be, used as a noun. The difficulty of grasping the scope of this neuter present participle (since there is also a masculine and a feminine present participle) has always given rise to all kinds of misunderstandings, since its use as a noun, represented by the neuter article 'tó,' is deceptive, and so Parmenides avoids it whenever he can. Indeed, just as verbal-noun infinitives always have a dynamic character, something similar occurs with the participle tò on, which as a present participle means that which is being,' that which engages in the act of being now. In all that I have said up till now, philosophy is absent: I have only summarized, perhaps too superficially, what Benveniste calls 'un fait de langue,"' (2) a fact about Greek simply as a language.
It is upon this linguistic fact that Parmenides reflects. In Greek the word for 'things' is ónta. Even in current everyday language, things are 'beings,' 'something(s) that is (are),' 'that which is being.' Philosophy has not yet come into it: that's the way the Greek language is. But why do we call something that is a 'being'? Because the fact of being manifests itself in that which is; if there is that which is, then the fact of being is assumed. Without the fact of being, there would not be things that are. This sort of platitude will constitute the nucleus of Parmenides' philosophy. And that is the reason why his thinking starts from an analysis of the notion of the fact of being, arrived at from the evidence that 'is' is occurring. If there is something undeniable for anyone who is, it is 'is.' If Greek syntax allowed the formula, we could say, with R. Regvald, that the basic question would be 'tí esti ésti,' 'What is 'is'?"
(1) Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale - Paris, Gallimard, 1959 p. 73
(2) ibid. p. 71 note 1.
From: Néstor-Luis Cordero - By Being, It Is. The thesis of Parmenides - Las Vegas, Parmenides Publishing, 2004 pp. 59-60 (some note omitted).

"It is an understatement to claim that `being' is one of the central concepts of ancient Greek metaphysics. Unfortunately, there is a split between contemporary commentators as to what is under discussion when being is the topic. On one side are those who think that these discussions are basically about existence; what exists, the various sorts of existence, what can be inferred from the fact that something exists, etc. On the other side are those who believe that these discussions are investigations into the nature of predication; of being something or other, the various ways a thing can be what it is, what can be inferred from the fact that a thing is something or other, etc. Obviously these are two quite different topics. For example, on the existence interpretation, as I shall call it, one of Parmenides' main points is that we cannot (meaningfully) speak of what does not exist. His mistake is to think that words and phrases which purport to refer but which do not refer are meaningless. On the predication approach, Parmenides is correctly pointing out that we cannot speak about nothing (what is not anything at all) and still be speaking. His mistake is to confuse not being something or other with not being anything at all. (1) On the existence interpretation, it is perhaps fair to say that Plato's distinction between real being and a lesser sort is a distinction between kinds of existence. On the predication approach, it is a distinction between really being this or that and being in a way or qualifiedly this or that. One's view of Greek metaphysics is going to be strongly influenced by which approach one takes. A little can be said about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches without getting into the details where, as we all know, the devil dwells. In philosophical discussions of being we frequently find the Greek, 'èsti', occurring without a completion. On the predication approach, sentences of the form, 'x is', are understood as meaning much the same as, 'x is something or other', in the way that, 'x sees', means much the same as, 'x sees something or other'. Furthermore, 'x is something or other', is understood as different in meaning from, 'x exists'. For example, Centaurs do not exist but they are mythical creatures, discussed, thought of and sometimes believed in. Thus, they are something or other though they do not exist. The problem for the predication approach is that there is no unambiguous use of, 'x is', to mean, 'x is something or other', in ordinary Greek. Such sentences can, however, mean, 'x exists'. This is a significant point in favor of the existence reading. This would probably be the end of the story were it not for the fact that in the metaphysical texts in question examples are given or inferences are drawn which make it clear that predication is in some way involved. For example, in the Theaetetus, 152 a ff., Socrates introduces Protagoras' relativism as follows: "Man is the measure of all things - of the things that are that they are and of the things that are not that they are not." Though an existential reading is perfectly natural, it is all but contradicted by what follows. Socrates illustrates the quoted dictum by pointing out that a wind may be chilly to one person and not chilly to another, i. e., that a thing may be thus and so to one person and not be that to another. Existence seems not to be in question. The strength of the predication approach stems from the fact that frequently the philosophical texts in question require us to somehow understand the verb,'ésti', as the copula.
(1) Mohan Matthen, "Greek Ontology and the 'Is' of Truth", presents and defends what is perhaps the most detailed and well worked out existence approach in the literature.(2) After pointing out that Greek philosophers sometimes use the verb, 'einai', in such a way that it seems to express both existence and predication, he presents an interesting account of this phenomenon which allows us to read absolute occurrences of the verb as neither the copula nor as (con)fused but as meaning simply, 'exists'. The assimilation of these occurrences to the copula is achieved by arguing that speakers of ancient Greek were committed to the existence of a type of entity which is unfamiliar to us and which he calls a 'predicative complex'. (3) (1) Richard J. Ketchum "Parmenides in What There Is", Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 20/2 (1990), 167-190.
(2) "Greek Ontology and the 'Is' of Truth", Phronesis, 28/2 (1983), 113-135.
(3) Matthen sometimes writes as if his thesis is restricted to philosophical Ancient Greek as opposed to Ancient Greek generally. For example, the task he sets for himself is to explain why Greek Ontologists accepted some principles which he in turn uses to account for the apparent ambiguity (p. 116). I shall assume here, however, that this thesis is intended to cover Ancient Greek generally. Greek ontologists other than Aristotle were at least sometimes writing for the general public. If the principles in question were accepted only by the ontologists, the various uses of 'shat' would have been as confusing to the ancient Greek as they are to us. If we restricted the thesis to ontologists, we would also need some explanation as to why the ontologists assumed principles of which the ordinary Greek was unaware.
From: Richard J. Ketchum "Being and existence in Geek ontology" Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 80, (1998) p. 321-322


"How scant of words our language is, nay, how poverty-stricken, I have not fully understood until today. We happened to be speaking of Plato, and a thousand subjects came up for discussion, which needed names and yet possessed none; and there were certain others which once possessed, but have since lost, their words because we were too nice about their use.
You will say, I suppose: 'What is the purpose and meaning of this preamble?' I shall not keep you in the dark; I desire, if possible, to say the word essentia to you and obtain a favourable hearing. If I cannot do. this, I shall risk it even though it put you out of humour. I have Cicero as authority for the use of this word, and I regard him as a powerful authority. If you desire testimony of a later date, I shall cite Fabianus, careful of speech, cultivated, and so polished in style that lie will suit even our nice tastes. For what can we do, my dear Lucilius? How otherwise call we find a word for that, which the Greeks call ousia, something that is indispensable, something that is the natural substratum of everything? I beg you accordingly to allow me to use this word essentia. I shall nevertheless take pains to exercise the privilege, which you have granted me, with as sparing a hand as possible; perhaps I shall be content with the mere right. Yet what good will your indulgence do me, if, lo and behold, I can in no wise express in Latin the meaning of the word which gave me the opportunity to rail at the poverty of our language? And you will condemn our narrow Roman limits even more, when you find out that there is a word of one syllable which I cannot translate. 'What is this ?' you ask. It is the word on. You think me lacking in facility; you believe that the word is ready to hand, that it might be translated by quod est. I notice, however, a great difference; you are forcing me to render a noun by a verb. But if I must do so, I shall render it by quod est. There are six ways in which Plato expresses this idea, according to a friend of ours, a man of great learning, who mentioned the fact today. And I shall explain all of them to you, if I may first point out that there is something called genus and something called species."
From: Seneca - Ad Lucilium. Epistulae morales - With an English translation by Richard M. Gummere - London - William Heinemann, 1953 ( Loeb Classical Library) pp. 387; 389-391).