I can conceive of someone saying 'this taxi you ordered is not here yet', which under some unusual circumstances could be whittled down to 'this taxi is not here'; but in the case of butter, it's difficult to imagine it ever being said.
The sentence could also work if the speaker were brandishing a photograph or drawing of a particular piece of butter, or as a philosophical assertion that runs contrary to the evidence of the senses about some real piece of butter. However, all of these scenarios seem too ridiculous (particularly about butter) for the sentence to have any value.
But there are sentences without a nominative, such as У меня нет брата "I have no brother", but more literally, "at me (is) no brother" -- the "I" is the complement of a preposition and is in the genitive, and so I suppose the subject is "no brother" -- which is also in the genitive here since the brother is absent.
I suspect that the genitive when talking about the absence of something has some of a partitive quality to it. Eg. "I do not have butter" in Russian is said something like "There is none of the butter with me" - it's not really absent; in a sense we're really talking about quantities.
There's nothing of that in this sentence; we're saying that some object is not here.
Does it sound right?
In this sentence, it seems to me (and I may be wrong, I'm just as much a learner as you) that "there is no butter here" is not semantically correct because this sentence, as demonstrated in the use of "это", places emphasis on a specific portion of butter (ie "the butter" not just butter in general).
Nominative: «Масло не здесь.»=“The butter's not here.”; «Она не здесь.»=“She's not here.”.
Genitive (specifically, partitive): «Масла нет здесь.»=“There's no butter here.”; «Её нет здесь.»=(literally)“There's no her here.”. The latter sounds a bit odd in English —recall Gertrude Stein's jarring line “There's no there there.”— but English does use the partitive comparably in, for example, “I want none of her!”. In the current context, English offers periphrastic partitive constructions such as “There's no sign|trace of her here.”.
This seems to be a common misconception about Duolingo - it is not about the sentences you learn, rather the vocabulary and sentence structures that make up those sentences. You may never say this particular sentence, but it doesn't matter, as the majority of the sentences you use in every day life have never been uttered before. Therefore, what Duolingo tries to do is teach you these sentence structures and vocabulary, which your brain can then repurpose into new constructions — hence better teaching you the language.
PS: just because you would never say something does not make it "not proper English". It's grammatically correct, and so "proper English", no matter how contrived.
I get you on the first paragraph. I will try and keep that in mind when I shake my head at some of the funny sentences. But I am still standing by my opinion that "this butter is not here" is partially nonsensical in English. And you wouldn't say it. There are people using this whose first language is not English. Why have them think that this sentence translation is OK?
I agree, it's very nonsensical, and that you probably wouldn't say it. And though I do still hold that its meaning doesn't matter, because Duolingo is teaching the underlying sentence structures and vocabulary, looking at the sentence again I do agree it's almost too nonsensical - the sentence doesn't help to teach you how to properly use the word масло.
I would like to say, however, that if there are, as you say, people in this course who do not speak English as fluently, then those people really should be focussing on their English. No disrespect to them - learning a foreign language is no small feat, and learning a second in your first foreign language is even more impressive but, honestly, this course is designed for native English speakers. Overall, though, I really don't think there are that many people in this course who don't speak English fluently, and so in that respect anyway nonsensicality is not really much of a point of concern.
Tristan, may I point out that, while many of the virtual attendants to this course (me included) don't speak English as our mother language, we do efficiently enough as to follow this course where only simple constructions are used. The plain and simple reason why I'm attending Russian course for English speakers is because the Russian course for Spanish speakers is not yet in beta phase. Not to forget that the course is labelled as "for English speakers", not "for native English speakers" ;)
Jokes aside, I'll just give an example taken from your post above. When I read "focussed", my first belief was that it was a typo, since I've always read "focused" as the correct spelling. Doing a double check, now I have learnt that both single and double "s" spellings are correct. I mean, Duolingo users who take a course in other than our mother languages -and we are legion, I believe- may lack deep English knowledge to ascertain if an English word or phrase, having a subtle difference with respect to what we use to speak, is really incorrect or not.
To me, "this butter is not here" does not sound well. I would prefer, in the need for referring to a specific piece or a specific brand of butter, to use "that" or "the". But if I saw it translated here as "this butter...", it being accepted, and nobody complaining about it, I might be tempted to think that this is a new subtle variation to add to my English repertoire.
I prefer people complaining about it, as many did here. It will not harm my limited Russian knowledge, and will hopefully prevent me making a mistake when using my limited English.
i don't think this is or should be the philosophy of duolingo. it is very possible and proper to teach us the vocabulary and sentence structures that characterize the language without along the way training us in unnatural constructions that don't occur in the language. that is counterproductive.
I agree., I would much prefer that all the sentences not only be grammatically correct, but also semantically correct.
The classic example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but not semantically correct is "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" (Noam Chomsky. Google it for a complete discussion).
I am sure that there are many native English speakers here who would be willing to be alpha testers and point out problems like this.
I agree with @AmisticaRMA, DL should put a bit more effort in providing sentences we would USE in real life. All that you've argued here can be understood/accepted, but still it would be all much more useful, if all the same done using useful sentences. Then we have 2in1: learning grammar + useful phrases, don't we?
This would make more sense if someone was pointing either to a picture of butter on a butter-tray or to an empty butter-tray whilst holding up said picture (and maybe have a large red arrow pointing to the other one). Ouh, I know, a before-and-after image where the first photo shows butter (past) and the following photo shows an empty butter-tray (present).
I just wrote: "The butter is missing." I was marked wrong, but will send it as a suggestion. "This butter is not here." is not something we would ever use in English… I am guessing that someone is laying the table and someone else is complaining that there is no butter.