The history of “I am,” “to be,” “it was”

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 02, 2018

Arika Okrent is one of my favorite writers. She’s a linguist who specializes in breaking down experientially rich but conceptually knotty problems in language for a lay audience. For the last few years she’s been writing for Mental Floss — see “The Evolution of ‘Two’,” this short essay on Plains Indian Sign Language, or especially her series of YouTube videos, of which the bit on irregular verbs up top is one.

Anyways, now she’s contributing to Curiosity, and one of her first essays is on the history and structure of that most irregular and polysemic of English verbs, “to be.

Most verbs stay basically the same in different grammatical roles. “Walk” looks like “walks” and “walked.” But the word “be” looks nothing like the word “am,” which looks nothing like the word “were.” This unusual circumstance came to be over thousands of years and can be traced back to an ancient ancestor of English.

That ancestor had three different verbs that gave rise to the different forms. “Am” and “is” go back to one of them. “Be,” “being,” and “been” go back to another verb meaning “to become” or “grow.” “Was” and “were” go back to yet another verb meaning “remain” or “stay.” Over thousands of years, these concepts and forms coalesced into a verb with a single identity, but hundreds of specific meanings.