The Nominal “Be”

Saturday, 10 March, 2018

“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.

That item of grammatical erudition is the work of Arika Okrent, a linguist who has carved out a nice of her own thanks to a series of popular Tube videos about language. “The Little Verb at the Heart of the English Language” is a piece she wrote last month for Curiosity, and it’s a useful outline of the history and structure of that most irregular English verbs, “to be.”

The thing learners of English find so challenging about “to be” is that it looks nothing like “am”, which looks nothing like “were”. All of this is due to the fact that “am” and “is” date back to one verb, while “be”, “being” and “been” have their origins in a verb meaning “to become” or “grow”. And if that wasn’t enough, “was” and “were” go back to verb meaning “remain” or “stay”. Down the generations, these concepts merged into a verb with a unique identity, but a vast number of precise meanings.

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