The Many Forms of the Verb TO BE

By Maeve Maddox

After reading O Second Person Where Art Thou reader Bill G asks:

How can I explain to my students why the singular “you” takes the plural verb “are?” Is there something obvious I am missing? Even “thou” took “art.” What is the history of this shift?

The answer to the first part of this question is that “are” is the form of the verb that goes with “you.” If “you” can be either singular or plural, so can “are”:

You are the one person I love. (singular)
You are the best friends in the world. (plural)

The only other word for “are” that ever went with “you” was sind (or sindon). Clearly, that one hasn’t survived into Modern English.

Of all Modern English verbs, to be has the most forms: am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been. In addition, the helping verb will is used to form a future tense with be (e.g. I will be with you in a minute.)

The forms are so different in appearance that they don’t seem to belong to the same verb. The fact is, they don’t. Oh, they do now, but they came from three different roots and merged in the Old English verbs beon and wesan.

(NOTE: Since I don’t know how to import the special OE symbols, I’ll use th for the /th/ sound and y for the “yot.”)

In a conjugation of the Old English (West Saxon dialect) verb beon/wesan, today’s English speaker will recognize the modern forms in:

ic eom =I am
thu eart =thou art
ic waes =I was
ye waere =you were

“You are,” however, was written in West Saxon as ye sind.

Although ye earun or ye aron did exist in a northern dialect of Old English, sind is the word for “are” in most of the Old English literature that survives.

But for a fluke of history, we could just as easily be saying you sind as you are.

An interesting footnote is that English once had three grammatical numbers and not just two.

Modern English has two numbers: singular and plural.

Old English had three: singular, dual, and plural.

Each “number” had its own set of pronouns:
First person:
ic=I
wit =two-person we
we =more-than-two-persons we

Second person:
thu = thou
yit =you two
ye =y’all

Third person:
he =he
hit =it
heo =she
hie =they

(For a complete explanation, see the relevant sections in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer or Wardale’s An Old English Grammar.)

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3 Responses to “The Many Forms of the Verb TO BE”

  • kong tha

    I wand to know the form of english

  • kaptan

    please, make clear the meaning of ‘you can take the future, even if you fail.’

  • Maeve

    Kaptan,
    I can only guess at the meaning because of the lack of context. If the speaker is talking about an examination, here is one possibility:

    You can take the exam again in the future, if you fail.

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