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.’


60 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.

    • Well-said, and for more reference information on French negation:


      As an aside, I always found the fact that “rien” means nothing (even when not a connegative with “ne”), rather interesting; etymologically, it comes from the accusative case of Latin “rēs” (“rem”), which means “thing” and ultimately comes from the PIE *rehis, “wealth” or “goods.” So, “wealth/goods” became “thing,” which in turn became “nothing;” language is strange.

    • The use of “ne … pas” as the most common form of negation in French is relatively recent, dating from the 18th – 19th centuries. Prior to that, “ne … point” was the most common form, as is clear from reading Corneille, Molière, Racine, etc.

    • Well, I’m Scottish and grew up using ‘amn’t I’ and ‘I amn’t’. ‘Aren’t I’ sounds so wrong to my ear. Even after listening to this episode I still don’t understand why it is used.

      Thoroughly enjoying this podcast which I listen to while knitting. Thank you, Kevin.

  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.

      • I’m not certain, but I think “Let it be” would be the subjunctive, similar to “if he should be late” or “that would be nice”. Happy to hear if others agree.

  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?

    • I’m glad you’re enjoying the series, but this is one of those requests that I’m afraid I cannot abide. “You all” is a commonly accepted alternative to the plural “you” in American English. I am not sure how often I actually use it in the podcast, but I doubt that I will stop using it since it is part of my normal vocabulary. Be thankful, I could use my more natural “y’all.” 🙂

        • In Ireland (Hiberno English) we commonly use “ye” instead of “you all”
          and “Yere” (rhymes with year) instead of “your” (plural). Some Dubliners use “youse” or “yiz” instead of “ye” and “yizzer” instead of “yere”.

          Not standard English but fully internally consistent nonetheless.

      • Kevin, I love your podcast. I think the opinion listeners occasionally express about your accent, pronunciation, or word choice is interesting. It seems that in all languages, the dialect of the most powerful city or or part of the country becomes accepted as the “proper” or “correct” form of the language, and other dialects are looked down upon as being “wrong”, and often indicative of a lack of education. Since that last point so clearly does not apply to you, I challenge other listeners to think about their attitudes to American southern people, and to the way they speak. (I’m in southern Canada, where we have our own regional quirks.) And it’s true, English is lacking in a pronoun for plural You. American southerners have come up with their own solution to that problem, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  6. I think that it’s worth discussing the conjugation of “be” when it produces the subjunctive in English; generally, people say that English has no inflected subjunctive, but really it does.

    For examples, the phrase “be that as it may” conjugates “to be” as “be;” in fact, in the present subjunctive, “to be” conjugates as “be” in all forms. Similarly, the past subjunctive conjugates as “were” in all forms; for example, “if I were a rich man,” not “if I was a rich man” (though contemporary English will say the latter because of confusion with past indicative construction). Additionally, the imperative mood used for commands follows the same construction as the present subjunctive, as in “Be quiet!”

    Lastly, you can form the present subjunctive for other verbs by removing the -s from all forms, in other words: (that) I own, (that) you own, (that) he own, (that) we own, (that) they own. I put the “that” in parentheses because it would almost always precede the verb. Contemporary English speakers tend not to utilize the subjunctive, however, accept in stock phrases maintained historically (e.g. “Heaven forbid,” “suffice to say,” etc.). And of course, the imperative for most verbs just comes from omitting “you,” as in “Go to bed!” and “Tell the truth!”

    • Hi Ryan. Great insight. I assume from your comments in this thread and others that you have a formal background in linguistics in general or English in particular. Is that presumption correct?

      • I have had formal study and training in linguistics, yes, though my expertise is actually Spanish-language literature, specifically Mexican literature.

        I don’t work in academia, however, so my study in recent years has been largely autodidactical.

  7. “Ain’t” can also mean “have not” or “has not,” both of which at one time contracted to “han’t.” Eventually, “han’t” elided into “ain’t,” and so we get: “He ain’t [hasn’t] done that since he was a kid,” etc.

    Additionally, it’s likely that “ain’t” came to mean “are not” and “is not” because many dialects (including Cockney, as mentioned) pronounced “aren’t” and “isn’t” closely enough that eventually speakers settled on the same contraction; imagine if you spoke a non-rhotic (when you don’t quite pronounce the letter “r”) or used glottal stops (like when you make that stop between “uh” and “oh” in “uh-oh”), then you get (phonetically) “ahnt” and “ih-nt,” which pretty much yield “aint.”

  8. Great podcast, Kevin! I started listening about a week ago, and I haven’t been able to stop since. Now, several friends and family members are following suit.

    I would like to make one observation: I feel that there is a distinct, if perhaps subtle, meaning imparted by some double-negative phrases.

    To me, phrases like “it’s not unusual,” “I don’t disagree,” and so on, express a degree of uncertainty, ambiguity, or non-commitment resting between the two extremes of “It’s unusual” and “It’s commonplace,” or “I disagree” and “I agree,” respectively. In instances which are subjective, or at least debatable, this is often called for, especially when one desires to address a viewpoint without taking a stance diametrically opposite. To say “It’s not unusual” is not, in itself, to say that “it’s commonplace.” Instead, it’s challenging the idea that the situation at hand is particularly uncommon. Along the same lines, to say “I don’t disagree” doesn’t necessarily express full agreement, but suggests a concession of at least part of the point, while withholding tacit acceptance. It might be followed by a “but…” or the but may remain unspoken, but in either case, it is not the same as a full assent.

    In any case, I’ve never considered these true “double negatives” as the term is typically applied, but rather a negation or challenging of a negative viewpoint.

    It’s not impossible that I’m wrong, though.

  9. Another great episode. Only a small quibble: what evidence do you have that Old/Middle English negation was calqued on Old French negation as it existed in 1066? If we want to use a comparative diachronic approach, then we have to be careful to use the versions of both languages as they existed at a particular point in time. So, in this case, it would seem anachronistic to conclude that Old/Middle English negation was influenced by the Middle/Modern French “ne [verb] pas” construction, which, as I understand, emerged in the 12th century.

    • From what I’ve read, Old French did have the emphatic negators that eventually became “ne…pas,” though they by no means started out with the same construction and frequency that we see in Middle and Modern French. Latin even had some “minimizing” idiomatic expressions, but they weren’t really used for everyday negation; Old French inherited some of those idioms and then expanded on them. While these corresponding emphatic negators were not universal, they saw more and more use as Old French evolved. By the time Middle French arrives, the construction is not novel, but it is established.

      • Interesting. Aren’t we just speculating, though, that this construction, which was just emerging in French, influenced negation in Middle English?

        • I think it’s fair to call it speculation, yes, though I suspect that some people would prefer to call it a hypothesis; as such, I agree that we should use caution, but ultimately it seems likely that the emphatic negation was an areal feature of this particular Sprachbund. So I suppose the question becomes “to what degree did these languages develop and spread this feature?”

          • Or maybe it is just a coincidence–both Old French and Old English had unstressed negative particles that were no longer suited for the purpose of clearly conveying negation to the listener (a point which Kevin explained very well). In any event, your Sprachbund hypothesis is interesting (and thanks for teaching me a new word).

            • Hi Jasper. I think you and Ryan have analyzed the issue very well. At the time I researched and prepared these grammar episodes several years ago, I didn’t maintain a specific list of sources for each part of the discussion. I still have all of my sources in my library, but I would have to go back to track down the specific source(s) that referenced the French construction as an influence. I did indicate in the episode that French used negative elements other than “pas” after the verb, so it is fair to say that the modern “ne pas” construction wasn’t fully settled at the time. I do intend to revisit these subjects when I get to early Modern English grammar, so I will try to go back and pull my original sources. If I can put my hands on them, I will include them here.

  10. I’ve noticed a similar problem in Modern American English with the “can’t”/”can” pair. It’s not unusual for a listener to ask her interlocutor to clarify whether she means “can” or “cannot.”

    • I had a similar experience when I came to live in Canada from the UK. It puzzled me that North Americans didn’t need to ask for clarification but others did.
      In later years I studied to teach ESL (English as A Second Language). As far as I can tell, when people say, “I can do that” they use a schwa sound for can. When they (north Americans) say “can’t” they do not. Once your ear becomes accustomed to that then you get it. I am not sure, but I think this is a problem perceived by English speakers from outside North America (including most ESL students). Can and can’t have very different vowel sounds in British English. Perhaps it is to distinguish the meaning. For a native English speaker, from outside North America, “you can’t do it” sounds like “you can do it.”
      Also, Kevin, could you clarify your point about the use of “you all” as standard American English. I have always thought it was from the southern states. I had not noticed it in the general population south of the border from where I live (e.g. on popular American TV shows).

      • Hi Catherine. Thanks for the comments and the question, but I’m reasonably certain that I have never suggested that “y’all” was standard in American English. I just did a quick search of all of my uses of the term in my transcripts and episode notes, and I can’t find an instance where I said that. You may have confused something I said in Episode 54. In that episode, I mentioned the rise of ‘regional’ terms to distinguish singular “you” from plural “you.” In that list, I mentioned “you all,” “y’all,” “you guys,” and several others. I then stated that “you all” is increasingly used outside of the South, and “you guys” is increasingly used in the South, but that was not meant to imply that “y’all” is accepted as ‘standard’ outside of the South. It has not risen to that level. (I should note that “y’all” is a feature of African American Vernacular English which is spoken throughout the US and is heavily influenced by Southern dialects. But again, I would not describe the use of that term as ‘standard’ outside of that dialect community.)

        By the way, you should check out the bonus episode I recently did with Allan Metcalf about his new book “The Life of Guy.” We discussed the rise of the word “guy” as both a noun and as part of the pronoun phrase “you guys.” We also discussed the regional distinction between “y’all” and “you guys” in that bonus episode.

  11. I am looking forward to the transcripts of these middle episodes!
    I can’t quite make out whether the competitor verb “wend” is related to “wander” or “wonder”. The former makes more sense to me, I guess.

  12. On double negatives, I’ve never agreed with the grammarians’ logic. It seems to me that they’ve assumed a grammatical negative must behave in the same way as a mathematical negative, but I wouldn’t say it does.

    In maths, a negative doesn’t just cancel the positve. -1 is actually a step in the opposite direction from +1. If that were true in grammar, “I didn’t take a step forwards” would mean “I took a step backwards”.

    A grammatical negative just means “nothing happened in this particular context”. The closest mathematical equivalent seems to be multiplying by zero – and however many times you do that, you still have zero. So “I never did nothing” should still be negative, as should “I never did nothing to no-one”, and even “I never didn’t do nothing to no-one”.

    • Wrong area of mathematics.
      It is from mathematical Logic not arithemetic.

      We are talking about the negative of as mathematical statement not a Number. E.g In Boolean Logic and probabilty the opposite of 1 is indeed 0.

  13. I’m interested in the fact that you mention there were two herbs “to be” in Old English.

    Modern Irish (Gaelic) has two verbs:
    i) Tá: e.g. “Tá mé” conveys “I am” (at this moment)

    ii) Bí: e.g. “Bím” conveys “I am” (regularly)

    Modern standard English doesn’t have a verb to concisely convey meaning (ii).

    Because of this, in Hiberno English people will commonly say “I do be” or “I bees” to convey meaning (ii).

    I wonder if one of the Old English verbs corresponded to the Irish verb Bí?

    • Declan, your statement “Modern Irish (Gaelic) has two verbs: i) Tá: e.g. “Tá mé” conveys “I am” (at this moment)” reminds me of the Spaniards (“Spanish”?) who currently use two forms of “to be”:-
      SER for permanence (I am Australian) and
      ESTAR for transience (Today I am in England).

      Kevin your comment on Old English having THREE forms of “to be” made me feel quite worldly!

  14. I have to say this series has me hooked ……. thank you.

    I wanted to tell you that this episode on the word “to be” has stirred some memories from way back. I was brought up in London but my father came from Lowestoft on the Suffolk/Norfolk border and from time to time 70 years ago, plus or minus, I’d be shipped up to the east coast week at a time and would spend much time with my cousins. I returned to London with a broad Anglian dialect/accent.
    I can hear clearly in my head from that time the frequent use of “I be”, “we be”, “they be”, “you be”, etc. The first of these sounded more like “Oi bay”. As you remarked in an earlier episode Lowestoft is derived from the old norse and likely this use of the norse version of “To be” has lingered there and maybe I have Viking blood!

    • I was going to make a similar point, having lived in Suffolk (Kingdom of East Anglia) and now in Somerset (Wessex), I am used to hearing ‘I be’ and ‘he be’ in normal speech. My son (born and brought up in Somerset) will often ask “Where you be going?”. It is also common in Somerset to ask “where you be to” (where are you).

  15. Thanks again Kevin for a throughly enjoyable pair of episodes on pronouns and to be – and bonus double negatives! I wonder if you couldn’t have done better on the last, but I think John D. Wangsgaard’s comment from two years ago fills the gap.

  16. Following up on John D. Wangsgaard’s comment above regarding formulations such as Tom Jones’s “it’s not unusual” … e.g., “not uncommon,” “not unheard of,” “not unworthy,” “not unwelcome,” etc. There’s actually a word for that: Litotes.

    Sayeth Merriam-Webster:

    “In classical rhetoric, such constructions are known as examples of litotes, defined as ‘understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary.’ These constructions are generally considered to be artful wordings that express something subtly different from what would be expressed if the two negatives were cancelled out.

    “So while it might not be uncommon to see a moose in the area, that doesn’t mean it occurs every day, either. The phrase is deliberately chosen because its intent is to dispel a notion of uncommonness with regard to moose.”

    Some ways of expressing degrees of commonness:
    (A) It’s common.
    (B) It’s not common.
    (C) It’s not uncommon.
    (D) It’s uncommon.

    I wonder: In typical use do those formulations signify decreasing commonness in that order, i.e., A>B>C>D, or is it more like A>C>B>D?

    In any event, I think the lyrics of “It’s Not Unusual” make clear that there the phrase is an example of litotes. That ain’t so for “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

    Thanks for this great podcast.

  17. Re the choice between “st” and “s” endings, Kevin suggests one reason might be linguistic confusion. I wonder if an alternative theory might have to do with shortening speech, what I might call word efficiency. “st” requires a vowel prior and thus adds a whole syllable, whereas “s” can be added to the end of a verb without requiring addition of a syllable. I am very interested in the imaginative ways we find to speed things up. Singing in a choir, or any music I suppose, you see examples of shortening lyrics/words to fit into the available “space”. I recall a Tallis piece where this happens, and “spirit” becomes “sp’rit”, one syllable. This particular shortening is hard to do, but in time I get more comfortable with the abbreviated pronunciation. When you need to say things more efficiently, we will find ways.

  18. I recently discovered the podcast and have been binge listening to catch up.
    Many of my comments on this episode have already been raised.
    In particular ‘be’ surviving in the subjunctive which, I believe, is live and well (at least it was nearly 40 years ago when I left the UK) e.g. are you suggesting that I be punished?

    Many of the old structures of English live on in regional dialects in the British Isles. I wasn’t aware of ‘I be’ in East Anglia, but I believe it is used in the South West. And ‘nae’ is used in Scottish and Northumbrian English (and Scots).

    I also thought that amn’t was used, but a quick Google search teaches me that it is considered Irish (I grew up in Northern Ireland)

  19. Just a very small nitpick: I’m pretty sure Mark Liberman pronounces his name as if it were spelled “Libberman” and not like “Leeberman”.

    Otherwise, excellent work as always.

    (and yes, I know I’m VERY late )

  20. Wonderful, even addictive series! A belated observation and an equally belated question:

    Re: “It is I,” here the verb “to be” does not denote an action, it establishes an equivalence, so what would normally be a subject and an object are instead two interchangeable subjects. While “I it is,” sounds awkward, it’s correct and logical, at least more so than “Me it is.” Perhaps the popularity of “It’s me” shows the enduring influence of the Normans, since in French it’s “C’est moi,” not “C’est je?”

    Is it possible that Norse speakers tried to accommodate the “th” ending, but had trouble with it, as so many contemporary people learning English as a second language do today? (My understanding is that, among modern languages, only English and Greek have the “th” sound.) So, stumbling over “th,” could the Norse folks have substituted “s” instead, just as a French speaker learning English might say “ze” instead of “the?”

  21. Re: ‘amn’t’
    Hi Kevin, I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m enjoying the podcasts! And I’m only up to 55!

    Just to let you know that the form ‘amn’t ‘ is actually alive and well in Ireland. I’m a Dubliner and have used it all my life. It is frowned upon a little as being a bit archaic (true) and grammaticly incorrect (untrue!).


    “Either I am or I amn’t!’

    It’s quite amusing to hear people who would correct ‘Amn’t I?’ go on to use the form ‘Aren’t I?’

  22. Another latecomer to this ball and I’m greatly enjoying it. Especially interesting to learn just now much Old Norse shaped many fundamental parts of Old and Middle English.
    I am Scots-born a d have always said “amn’t I?”, to the amusement of others.
    “Youse” is pretty common in vernacular English down under.
    As a sometime French teacher, I would add that omitting the ne before the verb is extremely common in spoken French. “Je ssis pas” is what you will commonly hear, or rather “Shay pa”.
    On double negatives, it may be worth noting that in classical Latin a double negative does denote a positive but double negatives in classical Greek double negatives are for emphasis.
    “I could care less” is considered weird in England.

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