2

What is the purpose of having different auxiliary verbs ("is", "are", "am") for different pronouns ("He", "You", "I"...) instead of simply using "is" for all pronouns? It seems like the pronoun always exists in a sentences where the auxiliary verb that relates to it appears, so, to me, having different auxiliary verbs seems to serve the sole purpose of overcomplicating the language and making it more difficult to learn.

| improve this question | | | | |
  • @NigelJ Speakers of more analytic languages like Chinese or Hebrew or Vietnamese frequently express umbrage at having to bother to learn how more synthetic languages like Russian or Greek or Arabic work, and sometimes suggest that we change our own tongues to make it easier for people without inflectional morphology to learn them. This can happen under creolization, but the resulting pidgin isn’t the standard language. That most-common-of-all-verbs be retains more morphology than any other remaining to us, as English has lost most of its inflections on a path from synthetic to analytic. – tchrist Dec 9 '17 at 20:07
  • More explanation added for this strange historical accident. – tchrist Dec 10 '17 at 16:25
  • 1
    This is not unique to auxiliary verbs - all verbs get conjugated in English (and many other languages around the world). It helps speakers parse sentences; they expect the verb to conform to the subject of the sentence. It certainly was't "invented" to make it more difficult to learn the language, the same way that using cases, different tone-heights or non-Latin alphabets were "invented" to make German, Chinese or Hindi more difficult for English speakers to learn. – oerkelens Dec 10 '17 at 16:36
  • @oerkelens I don't see how it helps parsing sentences. For example, "are" is used both for "You" as well as "They", and it doesn't seem to pose any problems. – user3054303 Dec 10 '17 at 17:34
  • 1
    I wonder what your native language is, and if that language has any constructs that could be equally confusing to non-native learners (to the point they may think you made them up to make life difficult). It could help trying to answer your own question about those constructs in your own language to understand why proposing such a change to English makes little sense. – oerkelens Dec 10 '17 at 17:48
4

No why, no purpose; just history

First off, you’re mistaken to tie these verb-forms to pronouns rather than to what we call “grammatical persons”. Pronouns are but an ancillary matter that make it easier to demonstrate those.

But more importantly, there is no “why”. There is no “purpose”. There’s just “is” — not to mention “am” and “art” and “is” and “are” and “be” and “was” and “wert” and “were”. It’s this little thing called inflectional morphology.

It’s just something we inherited from our ancestors. Think of it as being in our genes — linguistic genes, that is. There’s no “why” possible. It’s just genetics, is all it is. Asking why makes no more sense than someone asking you why you happen to have brown hair and brown eyes instead of blond hair and blue eyes “like normal people”. There is no reason, or at least not one that your own parentage cannot explain.

Having inflections is simply a basic property of Indo-European languages, languages today spoken by something like three and a half billion people all around the world, not just in Eurasia where they originated.

The reason a verb agrees with its subject in English is rooted in prehistoric Proto-Indo-European, something all Indo-European languages inherited genetically and naturally.

From there comes also the three-person inflectional system twinned for singular and plural (the dual was lost), as well as the tense-based inflectional system.

Mergers and Acquisitions

John Lawler has prodded me to explain a bit more about the curious set of inflections for the verb be in Modern English. The reason the inflections look so odd is because of what’s called suppletion, something that happens when one form of one verb takes the place of some form of a completely different verb, the way we see with go becoming went in the past, a form borrowed from the verb wend.

Be Special!

Be is a “special” verb in English. It’s our most common verb, for one, which probably explains some of its peculiarities. As you notice, it is morphologically special, too. It distinguishes between first and second and third person forms, the only verb to do so. It is also the only verb that distinguishes the singular and plural in the past tense: was for the singular and were for the plural — and in Early Modern English, wert for the now-archaic second person singular thou (and there were other spellings of that one, too). It even has a special form were that’s used for unreal hypotheticals no matter whether singular or plural. No other verb does that either.

Suppletion

The odd mixture of inflected forms is due to suppletion, a merger of forms from three other, older verbs. The Wiktionary entry for Modern English be explains that as follows:

From Middle English been (“to be”). The various forms have three separate origins, which were mixed together at various times in the history of English.

  • The forms beginning with b‑ come from Old English bēon (“to be, become”), from Proto-Germanic ✶beuną (“to be, exist, come to be, become”), from Proto-Indo-European ✶bʰúHt (“to grow, become, come into being, appear”), from the root ✶bʰuH‑.

  • The forms beginning with w‑ come from the aforementioned Old English bēon, which shared its past tense with the verb wesan, from Proto-Germanic ✶wesaną, from Proto-Indo-European ✶h₂wes‑ (“to reside”).

  • The remaining forms are also from Old English wesan (“to be”), from Proto-Germanic ✶wesaną, from Proto-Indo-European ✶h₁ésti, from the root ✶h₁es‑.

In fact, we could see this in Old English. The Wiktionary entry for Old English beon (ModE be) states:

The verb "to be" in Old English was suppletive, and used forms from at least three different roots. There were two distinct present stems, for which wesan and bēon were the two infinitive forms. The present bēon was used to express permanent truths (the "gnomic present"), while wesan was used for the present participle and the preterite. They both shared the same past tense forms.

If you look at the inflection tables for Old English bēon and wesan, you’ll see how the different inflections now used in Modern English were drawn from different original verbs:

inflections of OE beon

inflections of OE wesen

Compare the inflections of the Modern German verb sein because it has many of the forms that we saw in Old English but not since, and also because the German version’s inflections are still a jumble of forms there, too.

Summary

Yes, that’s pretty mixed up. The thing is that nobody “did” something to bring this situation about. Language doesn’t work that way.

| improve this answer | | | | |
  • Thanks for the answer. To me, it seems like whenever there is an overcomplication to a language that doesn't serve any puropose and doesn't contribute to the expressibility, there should be a degree of flexibility, starting from academia and emerging into the larger society, where the simplification would be considered as grammatically acceptable. However, If tommorow I decide that I only use "is" for grammatical persons, I will receive endless criticism... – user3054303 Dec 9 '17 at 19:51
  • ... It is a shame that we have to accept a language as it is, with all of its morphological complications, and not aspire to accept optimizations and simplifications where possible, to make the language easier to learn to billions around the globe. – user3054303 Dec 9 '17 at 19:51
  • 2
    @user3054303 English is not a constructed language, but it’s nonetheless one with a billion speakers. If you spoke a recently constructed little academic language with only a few speakers, then you might be able to pull off what you suggest, but otherwise you cannot. For real languages, that isn't how language change—evolution—works. Nobody can possibly change a real language that way. Go ahead, you try telling a billion people across scores of countries not merely what to do but what to say and how to say it, then get back to me and let me know how that worked out for you, ok? :) – tchrist Dec 9 '17 at 19:53
  • Well, no, not "genetics". Not really. Metaphorically, in this context, it means language change and history. Genetics involves genes; language does not. – John Lawler Dec 9 '17 at 23:01
  • 1
    @JohnLawler I was hoping to pull random mutation into it. :) – tchrist Dec 9 '17 at 23:51

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.