Why Do Brits Put R's Where They Don't Belong?
Also, how did the verb "to be" evolve into such an irregular mess?
Branton B. wants to know! Namely, he wants to know: “Where did the ‘to be’ verb go wrong in English? Why does it sometimes look like a Latin root with are(eres) and is(es) in Spanish. How did we get ‘am’ from ‘be’? That’s gotta be a good story.”
It is, and the verb to be in English is indeed a got-damned mess! It’s the one verb so irregular that we can be proud there’s something as shamelessly unlearnable in our language as almost everything seems to be in Russian!
Irregularity like that tends to happen when something is used an awful lot, which means that it’s common nouns like men, women and children (and once more common things like lice) that tend to have irregular plurals. With to be, it isn’t that all of those forms — am, are, is, been, was, were, etc. — come from one thing, but that no fewer than three different verbs all came together in a pile up. Once there was aron, beon and wesan (in Old English, or more properly very early Old English). At first they had subtly different meanings, reminiscent of that pesky difference (for English speakers) in Spanish between “permanent” ser and “temporary” estar.
But those meanings collapsed into a single vanilla one of just being, period, with forms from all three happening to fall into particular places. Thus are, been and was all have different Daddies, and here we, well, “are”!
Then, Darrin S. also wants to know. This time: Why do the English (British) seem to put a soft “R” sound at the end of words like law, or names like Rita?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Lexicon Valley from Booksmart Studios to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.