Cocktail party linguistics
March 31, 2013 6:08 AM   Subscribe

How come that various forms of the verb "to be" have different degrees of similarity across German/English/Romance languages? The third person singular ist/is/est seems to have an obvious common root, whereas I don't see it jump out on me for bin/am/suis at all, and in other forms it seems like German and French are close with English the odd one out (sind/sommes/are), which I found puzzling given that I usually think of English as the bastard child of these two.
posted by themel to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
This page seems to have a pretty good explanation.
posted by merocet at 6:19 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


You might also enjoy this book: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, which is chock full of cocktail-party linguistics thoughts (and is just a good, amusing read anyway).
posted by agentmitten at 8:20 AM on March 31, 2013


All forms of the verb "to be" were once more or less similar across Indo-European languages as they all come from a shared ancestor. That some are still alike and other different is really through the vagaries of language change. These changes can be understood in terms of what happened, but there really isn't any reason why one form would change and another survive. That the third person singular forms are still alike while others aren't is just chance, in the sense that it was not pre-ordained or inbuilt to the language but dependent on a host of factors that could have equally been different.
...in other forms it seems like German and French are close with English the odd one out (sind/sommes/are), which I found puzzling given that I usually think of English as the bastard child of these two.
The changes that French brought to English seem overwhelming, but they're often skindeep. There's no such thing as a "bastard tongue", and even were there English wouldn't be one.
posted by Jehan at 8:36 AM on March 31, 2013


What you're talking about is called suppletion. Anatoly Liberman, author of the Oxford Etymologist blog, has a post on the subject you may find helpful.

> All forms of the verb "to be" were once more or less similar across Indo-European languages as they all come from a shared ancestor.

This is not true.
posted by languagehat at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Like languagehat says, this is suppletion -- what we think of was one verb "to be" is cobbled together out of forms taken from three different roots. In other Indo-European languages, the verbs for "to be" have been cobbled together in similar ways, but not always from quite the same pieces. Here's more detail than you probably wanted about how it all happened.

Part of the story here involves "semantic drift" -- change over time in the meaning of a word. The root behind English be (and German bin, and -- though it doesn't look like it -- Spanish fui) originally probably meant something like "become" or "turn into" -- but over time it shifted to its modern meaning "be." Other forms in German and Romance be-verbs are believed to have come from verbs that originally meant "stand" and "live."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 1:58 PM on March 31, 2013


Thanks everyone, I take it that there is no simple answer, but your answers are great food for further research (and pretentious cocktail party concession l conversation)!
posted by themel at 12:04 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


« Older Can you identify this object / game / toy /...   |   How to stop voice overs. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.