Thursday, December 17, 2020

Language Of Confusion: To Be Or Not To Be

It’s the last etymology post of the year! Might as well do something that’s been a long time coming: be, one of the most common used verbs in English. I’m betting a lot of ESL learners are annoyed at it considering how irregular it is. Most of be’s forms don’t even look like the same word.
Be comes from the Old English beon, to be or become, from the Proto Germanic biju-. That’s from the Proto Indo European root bheue-, to be, exist, or grow, which is one of those things that’s part of a bunch of other words I won’t be getting into because we’ll be here all day and I’ve got things to do.
However, probably the only be word that’s from bheue- is been. The others are all different! Am was eom in Old English, and it was the first person version of be like it is today. It’s from the Proto Germanic ism(i)-, from the Proto Indo European esmi-, which is from the root es-, to be. Yes, they had two versions of to be. It’s also a part of a bunch of different words, the most obvious of which is is. Is is from the Old English is, big surprise, just is. That’s from the Germanic es-, from the Proto Indo European es-ti-, so a slightly different version of es-.
Now, for was. Man, is this one a trip. It showed up in Old English as wesan or waes, all of which are from the Proto Germanic wesanan. That one is from the Proto Indo European root wes-, which means to remain, abide, or well. So was isn’t even from a word that means to be. Were is from the same origin, having shown up as the Old English waeron, another tense of wesan/waes. There’s no real explanation as to why this word morphed into being the past tense of to be. It just did for some reason.
Words, man. Words.
Online Etymology Dictionary
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary


  1. It's like they took all of the little leftover words and threw them all into the "to be" pot, kind of like sweep-the-kitchen pizza.

  2. As it's probably our most important verb, I can see how it morphed from various sources and never normalized over time. I think it's weird in all languages, too. I remember it driving me nuts to learn in French; I imagine it would be the same elsewhere.

  3. Good one to sign off for the year. I remember how I used to get confused in school because the various forms of 'be' had no resemblance to neither one another nor the root verb.


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