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When I was looking for “ye” in a dictionary, I stumbled upon the phrase “Who be ye?”. But why is it “Who be ye?” and not “Who are ye?”? The modern equivalent of “ye” would be “you”, wouldn’t it? “Who be you?” would be considered incorrect, whilst “Who are you?” would be perfectly fine.

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    The following question might be relevant: Why “the powers that be”? Or, it could be a subjunctive, but I'm not sure if they were used in this context ("who" questions). It is possible that both "Who be ye?" and "Who are ye?" were used; archaic English is (was) not a homogeneous monolith. I hope someone will give you a definite answer, sorry that I can't! – sumelic Sep 29 '17 at 13:43
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    I think this question is also relevant (maybe even a duplicate): Is “Be ye…” subjunctive or imperative? – Laurel Sep 30 '17 at 14:33
  • I suggest that looks like a Question about historical development of the language, but is in fact about sophistication… confused by their overlapping. Even now, many people would find it rather novel than really surprising to be asked Who be you? in a rural farmyard. If there were many truly rural farmyards left, or country folk to work them, even Who be ye? might not be suspect - but there are no universities in the backwoods. – Robbie Goodwin Sep 30 '17 at 18:09
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    Because "Who be ye?" sounds more archaic. – Hot Licks Nov 30 '17 at 3:03
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There were several ways of conjugating to be in Early Modern English.

I am; thou art; he is; we are; ye are; they are;

I be; thou beest; he is; we be; ye be; they be.

I believe a combination of these was also used by some sources: namely, am/art/is in the singular and be in the plural.

"Who be ye?" is simply using the alternate form. But "Who are ye?" would have been grammatical as well, then, at least in some regions of England. Shakespeare generally used "Who are you?" and the King James Bible generally used "Who are ye?"

The OED mentions this in its discussion of Early Modern English grammar.

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    Yes. It is worth adding that in my younger days (1970s), plenty of people brought up in Somerset and the South West, still used ‘thou’ and ‘be’. These dialect survivals are now al but gone, extinguished by a combination of Standard English through TV and mass education. It’s a pity, in a way. – Tuffy Dec 1 '17 at 14:22
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The “be” is subjunctive. Many uses of the subjunctive are dropping out of the language, but one still hears these constructions from time to time, and I confess: I love to use it in writing, even this “be.”

are/be was/were

We still use “were” as the subjunctive quite a bit. Consider: “if I were you”...

Mostly we cue the subjunctive with an “if,” as in “if I were you,” but one can skip that “if” and say “were I you.” One of the most famous subjunctives in the English language starts Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”:

Had we world enough, and time, This coyness, Lady, were no crime

The word “had” in this example is also subjunctive. But all this sounds rather archaic because much of the special usages of the subjunctive mood have fallen out of common speech.

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    Can you cite a source that describes the use of the subjuctive in questions with a wh-word? – sumelic Nov 30 '17 at 5:24

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