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The Little Verb at the Heart of the English Language

It has many forms, and they're all quite short: "be," "is," "am," "was," "were". But the importance of the verb "to be" is humongous. It might not seem that interesting. It's a straightforward workhorse, giving us the means to talk about what things are, or, simply, that they exist. It sometimes plays a minor supporting role as a helper to more exciting, meaning-packed verbs. It keeps itself so small and unobtrusive that we hardly notice that it's the big, beating heart of our language. As David Crystal notes in his book "The Story of Be," it "has developed a greater range of meanings and uses, and a wider range of variant forms, than any other English word."

Why So Many Forms?

Most verbs stay basically the same in different grammatical roles. "Walk" looks like "walks" and "walked." But the word "be" looks nothing like the word "am," which looks nothing like the word "were." This unusual circumstance came to be over thousands of years and can be traced back to an ancient ancestor of English.

That ancestor had three different verbs that gave rise to the different forms. "Am" and "is" go back to one of them. "Be," "being," and "been" go back to another verb meaning "to become" or "grow." "Was" and "were" go back to yet another verb meaning "remain" or "stay." Over thousands of years, these concepts and forms coalesced into a verb with a single identity, but hundreds of specific meanings. Crystal covers several of them, among them meanings that we use so naturally, we hardly think of them as distinct.

Factual "Be"

"So be it." Today we use it as a phrase of resignation, to say, there's nothing to be done. But it is related to other, more archaic phrases like "howbeit," "albeit" (from "all be it"), and "being (that)," all of which somehow express some aspect of the status of "being a fact." When you say "so be it," you say the circumstance is a fact we just have to deal with.

Quotative "Be"

"I'm like 'yeah,' and he's all 'so what,' so I'm [rolls eyes in exasperation]." Does this teenager-style performance sound familiar? The eye roll and the use of like might be the things most likely to be noticed by a parent or teacher, but the verb to be is playing a special role here too. The phrases "I am like" and "he is all" are used to introduce quotes and could be substituted with the more formal verb "said." However, the third use of "to be" that introduces the eye roll couldn't take that substitution because it introduces a non-verbal gesture. Being like and being all are specific uses of be that allow the speaker to quote a word, a phrase, a sound effect, or even an action.

Nominal "Be"

"To be" can take on many different meanings as a verb, but it's also flexible enough to become a noun. "Has-been" has been a noun since the 17th century, when the Scottish referred to ancient customs as the "gude aulde has-beens." Now "has-been" is a succinct way to say "person who once was important in a field but no longer has that importance." There are also nouns for future states, as in "bride-to-be"; states that never came to pass, as in "might-have-been"; and desired states, as in "wannabe." These are just a few of many uses the ancient, flexible, large, and messy "be" has been put to. Without it (to use an example of "identifying be") English just wouldn't be English.

Arika Okrent received a joint Ph.D. in the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Psychology's Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the University of Chicago. She has also earned her first-level certification in Klingon.

History of English

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Written by Arika Okrent, Special Contributor February 21, 2018