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Today I was teaching my student the Second Conditional. When she asked for some examples I gave her: "If I were you, I would..." That was where she asked: "What is the etymology of this WERE?"


How has this WERE appeared? Where and why was it born? I mean, it is not WAS which would be more logical, as 'I' is the first person singular which requires a singular verb. I know that some of you kind hearts are going to quote some grammar rules. Please, don't. I mean, she and I know that 'good' grammars tell that in the Second Conditional's subordinate clauses one should use WERE, and we know the rules, and the hypothetical situations, and the structure.

The question is about etymology. Where in the history of the English language did people start using exactly WERE? My answer to her was that I did not know, but maybe it was some grammar rule borrowed from another language (like in the case with capital 'I' which takes its roots from before the 13th century). So, please, help me with the historical aspect. When and where and, possibly, why did WERE start being used in the Second Conditional? Thank you. :-) PS Please, do not duplicate the rules, the question is about etymology https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology


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  • You are actually asking why you use the subjuntive mood in if closes. – user66974 Mar 27 '17 at 21:03
  • Thanks, i will edit my question. The answer is supposed to be something like: 'The first examples of usage of WERE were recorded in 12th century in England, where they arrived from Wereland. The usage of WERE was widely spread in Wereland in the 13th century. The Werelandian author Gramaticus used it in many of his stories. From the Werelandians, this special usage spread upon the ancient English counties and by the 17th century was used in parallel with WAS. A famous British writer Wasnoter popularized WERE in IF clauses in his creations" and so on. – Sergey Larin Mar 27 '17 at 21:23
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    Old English past subjunctive. – tchrist Mar 27 '17 at 21:33
  • @tchrist Thanks, my friend! I know that Google is my friend, but maybe you could give some links to the sites where I could read more? PS Wiki is always making me sad with its grammar articles. – Sergey Larin Mar 27 '17 at 21:36
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It's actually 'native', a survival from the oldest recorded form of English. The Old English past subjunctive form was wære for all persons in the singular and wæren for all persons in the plural.

 wesan         PAST INDICATIVE     PAST SUBJUNCTIVE
       1sg     wæs                 )
       2sg     wære                ) wære
       3sg     wæs                 )

       plural  wæron               wæren

Forms for the present indicative and subjunctive, however, derived from a different PIE stem, es-. And eventually almost all the inflectional endings were lost, and forms from a third verb, beon, which had previously been used where ModE uses be only in a few limited contexts, were adopted for the infinitive, imperative, present subjunctive and present participle. This happened after the Viking invasions, and may be attributable in part to the collision of two closely related languages in the north and east of England.

  • @sumelic I'm relying on OED 1, which agrees with the scraps of OE I learned 50 years ago. I wouldn't be too perturbed to find that wes- and es- are collateral, but beon was certainly distinct from wesan in OE; if those too were at one time related, you have to postulate a pre-OE divergence. – StoneyB Mar 27 '17 at 21:58
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    And in case Sergey doesn't know what exactly ‘native’ means here, it means that the past subjunctive that is now were and in Old English was wære(n) did not start being used at any point in English—it did not spring into existence at some point. Rather, it was a part of the language long before what we call ‘English’ came into being. Asking where it originated is like asking where the past tense originated, or the plural. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 27 '17 at 21:59
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Even more precisely, "before what we call English came to be recorded". – StoneyB Mar 27 '17 at 22:03
  • If we’re talking PIE roots, h₁es- and u̯es- are definitely separate roots, and I believe they were mostly kept separate up until Proto-Germanic times, though they were frequently combined (to varying degrees) into single, suppletive paradigms in the individual Germanic languages. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 27 '17 at 22:04

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