Journal of Ibero-Romance Creoles

Volume 2 (2010)

"Copula deletion" in restructured Portuguese 

John Holm & Patrícia Vieira Machado (Universidade de Coimbra)

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Brazilian linguists have taken to discussing what Ribeiro (2009:220) calls “o apagamento da cópula na construção de clivagem” [‘the deletion of the copula in cleft constructions’] in reference to sentences in Brazilian Vernacular Portuguese (BVP) like “Ela que sabe” (‘She’s the one who knows’; cf. Brazilian Standard Portuguese [BSP] “É ela que sabe’). However, the term is also applied to constructions like BVP “Quem que foi lá?” `Who is it that went there?´ (Márcia Oliveira, personal communication). From the perspective of European Portuguese (EP) and SBP, in which this structure is unacceptable without the copula é (“Quem é que foi lá?”), the BVP constructioncertainly seems to involve the deletion of the copula. Labov used this term for a different structure in African American English (AAE): “He ___ fast in everything he do.” (Labov 1972:67). However, there is a problem in calling any of these sentences examples of “copula deletion”, which means that they lack a syntactic feature that should be present in a different variety, suggesting that they are in this sense deficient. This problem is not unusual in comparing non-standard varieties with those that are standardized, but the deeper problem is that this terminology suggests that there might be some simple rule for “copula deletion” to account for such a phenomenon without taking into account the facts surrounding the development of such constructions, particularly when they seem likely to be the product of language contact.  
Considering BVP constructions with question words followed by que rather than é que, which also occur in the Portuguese-based creoles of West Africa, Mello (1997) concluded that in Brazil “this structure was reinterpreted during the restructuring of Portuguese as question word + highlighter” (1997:172), referring to the highlighters (HL) or focus particles (FocP) used to emphasize fronted elements in many West African languages (Holm 1988:179 ff.). We confirm Mello’s hypothesis by demonstrating the parallel use of highlighters in Guinea-Bissau Creole Portuguese and one of its primary substrate languages, Balanta. We conclude that while the incorporation of que as a focus marker into such BVP in structures was likely to have been facilitated by the existence of the Portuguese emphatic structure é que for native speakers of that language, its original motivation was more likely to have been the obligatory marking of focus on fronted elements for native speakers of Portuguese creoles and their substrate languages.  
Keywords/Palavras-chave: Brazilian Vernacular Portuguese, copula deletion, highlighter, focus particle, fronting, question words, substrate influence, West African languages.