Thursday, July 4, 2013

Language of Confusion: To Be or Not to Be

Not just “be”, really, since be has so many forms that do not seem connected to the root word. I mean, am? Are? Were and was? What the hell are those?!

I don’t have a time for when be showed up, but I’m sure it’s because it’s always the first to appear in a “new” language. In Old English, be is beon, beom, or bion, meaning be, exist, become, or happen. It comes from the Proto Germanic biju, “I am, I will be”, and can be traced to the Proto Indo European bheue, be, exist, or grow.

Is, the most common word for those of us who write in present tense, comes from the Old English is and can be traced to the Proto Indo European es, to be. This word is still apart of many languages, from the German ist to the French est to the Latin esse. It can also be found in English words like essence. So originally, it was another word for be, or bheue, and now they’re both the same word.

Was comes from the Old English wesan, waes, and waeron (the origin word for the plural were), which are actually forms of the word wesan, to remain. Wesan comes from the Proto Germanic wesanan and the Proto Indo European wes, remain or dwell. Although it used to be its own word, sometime between Proto Germanic and Old English it turned into the past tense of be.

Am comes from the Old English eom, to be or remain, and Proto Indo European esmi. Back in Old English, it only appeared in the present tense and until the thirteenth century meant something like “come to be” while existence was expressed with wes up there. There’s also are, which was earun/aron in Old English and probably came from the Proto Germanic ar, a possible variant of es. I guess people started combining the various definitions of be until they found forms that worked.

You can bet I’ll be doing more of these so-called simple words.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English

University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language


  1. Wow! You never really think about how such tiny little words you use all the time actually came from somewhere.

  2. Never really thought about how all those forms of the to be verb came together. Always just kind of figured since it is the go to verb, it never got normalized like the others. Shows what I know.

  3. Oh my gosh. Wait'll you see my grammar post on Monday. People are going to think we planned this. (Or that I copied you. 0_0) Truly, I didn't. My GPM posts are pre-scheduled one to two months ahead. LOL

  4. Language history is interesting.

    In the Scandinavian languages "er" is the word for "is", or "are", which sounds more similar. The same word "er" is used for both singular and plural. Not sure how this fits into the the proto-language theories >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  5. Eom strikes me as the kind of archaic word that could be used for a character name or alias. Interesting in how it morphs into am.


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