The verb “to be” in English is a complete mess. It has a different form for almost every person (i.e. 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person), it changes in the plural and also changes a lot in the past tense. The modern conjugations of “to be” are the result of multiple verbs mixing together.
I have talked previously about suppletion, which is the process by which forms of a verb push out the original forms of another verb. It didn’t just happen once with “to be”, it happened many times.
Let’s start at the beginning with “I am”.
It comes from “Ic eom” in Old English. “eom” is descended from a conjugation of the word *wesaną “to be, dwell” from Proto Germanic. By the way, a star indicates a reconstructed form. Proto Germanic wasn’t written down, so we have to reverse engineer what it was like. *wesaną comes from the Proto Indo European word *h₁ésti which means “to be” (h₁ indicates a kind of guttural sound made at the back of the throat).
If you have read Shakespeare or the King Jame’s Bible, you will know English used to have a word “thou” which was used for the second person singular, i.e. someone you know that you were friendly or intimate with.
From Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate”
“art” was a variant of “are” which was used with “thou”. This pronoun “thou” used be a standard part of the language but eventually died out for various reasons (really, the reason it died out is a story of its own).
“art” comes from Old English “eart” and is descended from a form of the word *iraną which means “to rise, be quick, become active” and is itself descended from Proto Indo European *er-, *or- which means “to lift, to rise, set in motion”. It is related to the Faroese and Icelandic word “ert”.
While we are here, let’s look at the related word “are”. It is used with “you”, “we”, and “they”. It comes from the Old English “earon”, which also comes from a conjugation of the Proto Germanic *iraną. “earon” was reinforced by Old Norse “erun” leading to Old English “sind” (compare with German “sind” which means the same) to eventually disappear from the language.
The Vikings invaded England on and off thorughout the 800s AD and they left a big mark on the English language. A lot of the words in English today are descended from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.
“is” is the only other present tense form we have to look, and it hasn’t changed in spelling since Old English. It is descended from the Proto Germanic word *wesaną. It is related to West Frisian “is”, Dutch and Afrikaans “is”, German “ist” and Old Swedish “is”.
Ok, almost there! Let’s look at “was” and “were”. They are descended from conjugations of the word “wesan” in Old English. “I was” in Old English is “ic wæs”, and “you are” in Old English is “ġē wǣron”. “wesan” comes from Proto Germanic *wesaną.
If you are keeping up, then well done 😀 But here’s where it might get a bit surprising. If
suppletion in Modern English was too boring for you, how about suppletion in Proto Germanic 😀
All the present forms of “to be” in Proto Germanic come from Proto Indo European *h₁ésti, as I said before, but all the past tense forms come from *h₂wes- which means “to dwell, live, reside”. Once the “h₂” consonant was lost in Proto Germanic, all the conjugations now started with a “w” and we can see that in words like “was” and “were”. How about that? Suppletion has been happening throughout the history of the Proto Indo European language and its descendants.
And finally, let’s look at “to be” itself. This word and its other forms such as “been” and
“being” actually come from a completely different root, so it represents our third Proto
Germanic verb to stuff itself inside this weird verb “to be” that we have in Modern English. “to be” comes from Old English “bēon” from Proto Germanic *beuną “to be, exist, come to be, to become” which itself came from Proto Indo European *bʰúHt which meant “to grow, become, come into being”.
The verb “beon” used to be used much more often in English, and forms of it existed alongside descendant forms of the word *wesaną and *iraną and for centuries until “am”, “are” and “is” eventually won out.
Some languages are still using a descendant of *beuną. In German, you have “Ich bin” (I am), “Du bist” and in Dutch you have “Ik ben”.
So in summary,
“am” and “is” come from Proto Germanic *wesaną ”to be, dwell” which comes from Proto Indo European *h₁ésti
“art” and “are” come from Proto Germanic *iraną “to rise, be quick, become active” which comes from Proto-Indo-European *er- “to lift, rise, set in motion”
“was” and “were” come from Proto Germanic *wesaną, but the past tense forms of *wesaną come from a different Proto Indo European word *h₂wes- ”to reside”