Episode 55: To Be or Not To Be

‘To be or not to be?’ That may be the question. But where did the various forms of our modern verb ‘to be’ come from?  And what about other Shakespearean phrases like ‘he hath,’ and ‘thou shalt,’ and ‘fear not?’ In this episode, we explore the Anglo-Saxon or Viking origins of some of these common verb forms in early Modern English. We also examine the history of the English word ‘not.’

9 thoughts on “Episode 55: To Be or Not To Be

  1. I wanted to say how much I’m enjoying this string of episodes on grammar and the Viking influences.

    I was particularly struck by some things from learning Danish (as well as German which you mentioned in the episode), which is descended from Old Norse.

    One is that Danish uses “er” for all present tense forms of “to be” – 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, singular and plural. I’d certainly say that’s related to the Old Norse that gave us “are”.

    The other thing is that Danish adds “s” to verbs to show passive voice. So “drengen følger” means “the boy is following”, but “drengen følges” means “the boy is being followed”.

  2. I also have been loving this string of grammar episodes. I love having the history for the irregular forms and, in the last episode, for the pronoun rules (and why they give us such trouble). My husband and I are always arguing (good naturedly?) about “It is I” so now I’ll just tell him that he is being an elitist and if he wants to be a stickler about linking verbs, he can go speak Latin.

  3. Thanks for another fascinating and well-produced podcast. I’d like to add a footnote to the discussion of negation in French. Take the phrase “Il ne va pas” (he goes not). The word “pas” literally means step. So the phrase literally means “he walks not a step”. Figuratively it can just mean not working or out of order. A “faux pas” is a false step by the way. In days of yore there was more than one way to formulate negation in French. Same syntax but with other words than “pas”. So you could say “ne voit point” (don’t see a dot), “ne dit mot” (not say a word), “ne mange mie” (not eat a crumb), or “ne bois goutte” (not drink a drop). All of these still make sense and are still used for emphasis but mostly “pas” is used.

  4. Late to the party here but enjoyed this episode very much (always been a grammar nerd). I usually end up summarizing “what I learned today” to my 16 year old daughter and when explaining how “be” was originally a different verb and one could say “I be” or “he be”, she said “Oh, like, let it be”. I was struck by how quickly she came up with that, but I think she was right.

  5. I love the series (along it is taking me time to listen to them all). But, please, can you drop the “you all”? It grates every time I hear it and it takes a few moments to get back into the flow.

    • He’s trying to account for the fact that modern English doesn’t have a second-person plural entirely distinct from the second-person singular; in other words, “you” and “you” can mean “you-one-person” and “you-more-than-one-persons.”

      I prefer “you” and “you all” to something like “you singular” and “you plural,” but what would you have him say?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.