Is Are Be Am Was?

I’m still on the Wiktionary kick (for whatever reason) so let’s talk word origins!

In answer to one of Bill Clinton’s golden lines, we will (briefly) investigate what the meaning of is really is.

This following is a practice sentence:

It is important that we be open to what was—as well as what things are becoming.

I apologize for not spending time to make that sentence sound better. It’s major problem, though, is its purpose: it illustrates four forms of “to be,” each one of which, as Wiktionary (and no doubt the OED and its copyrighted brethren) states, originated from a different word:

is: From Middle English, from Old English is, from Proto-Germanic *isti, a form of Proto-Germanic *wesaną (“to be”), from Proto-Indo-European *h₁ésti (“is”). Cognate with West Frisian is (“is”), Dutch is (“is”), German ist (“is”), Old Swedish is (“is”). The paradigm of “to be” has been since the time of Proto-Germanic a synthesis of four originally distinct verb stems. The infinitive form “to be” is from *bʰuH- (“to become”). The forms is and am are derived from*h₁es- (“to be”) whereas the form are comes from *iraną (“to rise, be quick, become active”). Lastly, the past forms starting with “w-” such as was and were are from *h₂wes- (“to reside”).

How exactly does that happen? It doesn’t happen with most verbs: for instance, the word “to know” remains a dominant holdover from its Germanic origins. “To know” overtook “to wit” and its older forms to become our controlling word for understanding (“to understand” remaining an alternative). But these words stayed separated, despite some overlap in their meanings. So why didn’t we keep four (or more) discrete words for existence (from the Anglo-Saxon, to clarify, as Latin forms like “to exist,” etc. arrive to the English party later on).

There may be a linguistic or anthropological explanation for why combine four separate words into one word: “to be.” So I’ll ignore those avenues and leave that research to you.

The Germans offer us another useful word (beyond is and its ilk): gestalt, the apprehension of a whole as different or more than the sum of its parts. “Be” embodies this notion: in no other lexeme (a single word’s set of inflected forms) is English so various (to my knowledge).

To clarify: I may know, you may know, they may know; you may have understood, I may understand, you all will understand. In contrast, I am, you are, she is, they were, we have been.

What is odd is that this four-piece band that composes tiny to be goes mostly unnoticed. The gestalt has managed to flatten its pieces and made the final product less than their summation.

Is there a solution? If we all agreed, then “she be powerful” might allude to a woman in the act of drawing power. Likewise, “They was happy” might refer to a mental state long and profound, rather than temporary (as the ser/estar forms of “to be” in Spanish can negotiate). “He are fast” could express the speed and force of running, without even the modifying “fast.”

This sounds fantastic, akin to recovering the long-abandoned neuter gender Old English to abolish the language’s present gender woes. Still all the meanings are still there: for one reason or another our linguistic ancestors kept them, though smashing them together into one verb. The connotations remain, waiting for someone patient or silly enough to put them to use.

I’re be waiting.