To be or not to be, that is the question

Arguably this is one of the most famous sentences ever written by Shakespeare. The famous soliloquy has stood the test of time and is still studied over 500 years later.

“TO BE” is one of the most common verbs in the English language and also happens to be the most irregular.

Due to it’s changeable pattern and its frequency in everyday English language, it is one of the first verbs that English language learners use.

But why does the English language contain so many irregular verbs?

Well if you are to look at the history of England, you will find that these words did once follow a regular pattern or a rule.

Centuries ago the common rule used to be to change the vowel so for example the word “RIDE” became “RODE” and “DRINK” became “DRANK”. Some of these words survived and are still used in modern day English.

Around 1100 AD there was another rule emerging that was used for the past tense. This rule changed the ending to a “D” sound and this leads us to the common suffix we use today “+ed” This gained huge popularity and spread across England during the Norman period.

The words that followed the original rule of changing the vowel did not adapt or change and these eventually became known as irregular verbs.

The irregular verbs also happen to be the most common used in the English language. It is believed that these resisted the change because they were used so commonly that they were reinforced time and time again. The verbs that weren’t as frequently used soon became forgotten and the new rules took hold.

If you look at the words “SLEEP” and “FEEL” you can see they resisted the new rules as these words do not change to “SLEEPED” or “FEELED” they use the old-fashioned rule of changing the vowel and become “SLEPT” and “FELT”.

So, what about “TO BE” the vowel does not change and the Norman influence of adding a “+ed” doesn’t happen either.

Well, one theory to understand the verb “TO BE” transports us back 6000 years to when Proto-Indo-European language was used, a language that is the ancestor tongue for most of Europe and Asia. Although this language has never been written down scholars have spent years studying it.

The asterisk symbolises what language historians believe but cannot be proven.

The infinitive word “TO BE” is believed to derive from *bheue which means “exist and grow”

This potentially gave us the words “BE” and “BEEN”.

“AM” “IS” and “WAS” finds its origins in the proto-Indo-European word *esmi.

The word “ARE” however was created from the Proto-Germanic word *ar and the English language has deep Germanic routes.

*esmi words that began with “S” in the English eventually disappeared but can still be found in French and German. For example, “JE SUIS” meaning I am and “SEIN” meaning to be.

Following the Proto-Indo-European theory, the English language adopted the theory that words that began with “S” when used in the past tense would change to *es or *wes. This in turn created the word “WAS”.

The words that used *esmi as its founder eventually came to mean “exist” and the words that used *bheue meant “come to be”. Which may explain why in Spanish, there are the verbs SER and ESTAR, which both mean “TO BE”.

As time progressed all these influences were thrown into the metaphorical melting pot of the English language. “TO BE” is as I previously said, one of the most common, if not the most common used verb in the English language. Therefore, frequent repetition and reluctance to change kept the origins of the verb strong.

Next time you hear a toddler using the term “ we goed to nursery today” and you automatically correct them and explain that we use the word “WENT”. Think about the 6000 years of history that has taken place to retain that word.