Is there a name for words that exist purely for syntactic reasons and carry no lexical meaning?

Some forms of sentence in my language don't have verbs, but information such as tense and mood are indicated by affixes on the verb. So, in cases where you need to modify the verb, a meaningless verb fills in; the verb carries no meaning on its own, existing just to hold affixes.

Here is a sentence without a verb. No verb is used for just applying an adjective to a noun. Adjectives are applies directly to the noun.
The wood is alive.

But (for example), past tense is marked by a suffix on the verb so it needs a verb to attach onto; ta "stands in" for the absent verb, giving -to (past tense) something to attach to.
Ta-to mopifa-di-mopi
(null)-(past) life-(adj-on)-wood
The wood was alive.

"Ta" is the word I'm talking about.

  • 1
    The correct answer to this depends on how the words function syntactically, as well as what exactly you mean by "no meaning". Could you perhaps give us an example sentence (ideally with a gloss) of one of these syntactic words? That might make it easier to give you good answers.
    – Sparksbet
    May 20 '18 at 16:52
  • di in your example would be a preposition (as on is in English), not an adjective. May 21 '18 at 13:33
  • @OliverMason Not necessarily; could be an adjectivalizer or attributive marker or something. It seems to be attached to "life" to me, anyway, so it seems more like a postposition if anything.
    – Sparksbet
    May 22 '18 at 20:33
  • @Sparksbet It is an adjectivalizer.
    – qwertyu63
    May 23 '18 at 3:16

One general term would be function words; these are words that do not carry any lexical meaning, but are used to link content words together and clarify their relationships (eg in the case of prepositions or conjunctions).

It is indeed difficult to see exactly what you have in mind without any examples; other possibilities would be particle, which is eg used in Japanese to mark certain grammatical features (such as 'direct object').

Some people use the term empty verb for the auxiliary in phrases like to have/take a shower, where you could just use to shower directly; here you can add the tense feature to the auxiliary as in She had/took a shower.

As an aside: there are no words that "carry no meaning". If a word has no meaning, it is redundant, and would not be there at all. In linguistics you distinguish between lexical meaning and functional/grammatical meaning: the former you would find in a dictionary definition, whereas the latter is not always easy to put into words, as it describes relationships between elements in and structure of a sentence.

Update after example: Hard to say. A particle usually doesn't change its form (at least in English and most other natural languages I know), so the fact that the marker -to is attached to it would rule that possibility out in my view. That would leave empty verb as the most likely option, but then it is not really necessary when the marker is not used. I guess it would still be my preference, though.

  • Particles are definitionally never inflected, so yeah, OP's example would not be a particle. "Empty verb" seems like good terminology, but I'm wondering if this might just end up serving as a copular verb in the end?
    – Sparksbet
    May 22 '18 at 20:39
  • « there are no words that "carry no meaning" » — I'm not so sure about that - "ne" in French seems like a good candidate of a word that carries no meaning. Jul 5 '18 at 0:57
  • @celticminstrel If it carried no meaning, why is it there? Meaning is not just semantic meaning, though, but could also be pragmatic. A word must have a purpose, otherwise we wouldn't use it. In linguistics 'meaning' has a slightly broader definition as just 'lexical meaning'. Jul 5 '18 at 7:44
  • @OliverMason - My assumption is that it used to have meaning, but at some point that meaning was lost and it became a functionless relic. This is probably why some dialects actually drop the "ne" altogether - while in Paris you'd say "Je ne sais pas", in Quebec you'd instead just say "Je sais pas" (if I understand correctly). Jul 8 '18 at 2:52

I am not aware of a generic term covering all instances of function words without meaning, but only some specific cases. The pronoun it in phrases like It's raining or It seems that ... is called a dummy pronoun, pleonastic pronoun, or expletive pronoun.

Extending from this example one may call the particle ta in the question a dummy verb.

  • The technical term for it in those constructions is "pleonastic it" (Lappin & Leass 1994) May 21 '18 at 19:41
  • Added pleonatic pronoun. I am not sure whether some of the term is really the term, I have heard dummy pronoun definitely very often. May 21 '18 at 20:33
  • I hear "dummy pronoun" more often than "pleonastic it" -- although both "pleonastic pronoun" and "expletive pronoun" are indeed alternate terms for the same general concept.
    – Sparksbet
    May 22 '18 at 20:35

A common term for such a word would be auxiliary. An example from the Australian language Walmajarri is ma-rna-n-ta-lu, where ma is the auxiliary to which the suffixes are attached. However as your word is used for carrying the TAM (Tense/Aspect/Mood) suffixes another term is copula. Copulas are often verbs (such as the English be) but not in all languages.

For a natlang I would strongly warn you that just because you haven't yet identified a meaning for the auxiliary, you shouldn't assume that it does not has one. As you're making a conlang you can declare that it truly has no meaning whatsoever, but do realise that makes it rather unnatural. In natlangs it's extremely uncommon to say something without it meaning something. For example, in Walmajarri the ma auxiliary is one of two auxiliaries, which communicate different modality or information structure meanings. Unless the auxiliary is very short (in which case it could be analysed as epenthetic or just an allomorph of the tense morpheme) then if naturalism is at all a design goal it should carry some semantic or pragmatic meaning. This gives you an opportunity to think of something interesting and perhaps even unique for your conlang.

  • Unless I'm massively misunderstanding what OP's question is, neither auxiliary or copula seem like accurate terminology for what they describe. At least, there isn't enough information to say for sure that what they've got is an auxiliary or copula (and since they describe it as occurring in sentences without verbs, I feel auxiliary is unlikely). Could be a pro-verb or something else entirely.
    – Sparksbet
    May 20 '18 at 16:51
  • @Sparksbet What they're describing isn't naturalistic, so of course no terminology will match perfectly. But a pro-verb seems way wrong to me as it clearly has contextual/pragmatic meaning. And although many people use auxiliary as a subtype of verb, the sense I'm using it as is just as a non-verb syntactic marker, as its used in describing many Australian languages such as the example I give.
    – curiousdannii
    May 20 '18 at 16:55
  • I don't see how you can jump to the conclusion that what they describe is not naturalistic with how little detail they've provided. It could well be a very naturalistic copular construction, for instance. Obviously pro-verbs do carry meaning in context, but given that I don't expect everyone who posts here to have much linguistic background, I'm not going to assume they mean exactly what I'd mean by saying "it has no meaning". They could just mean that it doesn't provide any lexical content (which is often what laymen mean when they say "no meaning").
    – Sparksbet
    May 20 '18 at 17:01

This word is acting as a copula. It is entirely reasonable for the copula to be omitted in some contexts and not others. For example, Hungarian requires zero copula for third-person constructions in the present tense (the second item here is ungrammatical):

  Róbert öreg ∅.
  Robert old COP
  "Robert is old"

* Róbert öreg van.
  Robert old  COP
  "Robert is old."

But uses the normal copula "lenni" (highly irregular) in the past tense:

  Róbert öreg volt.
  Robert old  COP.PST
  "Robert was old."

I have heard the term "Proverb" used to describe the word "do" as it is sometimes used in English, and that seems to be something you're trying to achieve here.


Q. "Did he go to the store?"

A. "He did."

In this case, "did" is used to refer to "go" in the previous sentence, analogously to how a pronoun is used to refer to a noun. I hope this is what you're looking for? It's a bit more specific than function word

  • Reading this question I had the exact same thought: "The English 'do' is sort of empty when used as an auxiliary verb, and relates to verbs sort of like pronouns relate to nouns". It feels striking that I've never learnt this before!
    – Edvin
    Feb 2 '21 at 9:51

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