Book review: The Story of “Be” by David Crystal

’Tis the season for ’tis the season, that yuletide cliché stuffing headlines and ad copy like so many Christmas stockings.

This season, though, I got to thinking about ’tis itself, that old-timey-sounding contraction of it is. In one of his latest books, The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language (Oxford University Press, 2017), the great and prolific David Crystal explains:

For students of English literature, the usage that probably most attracts attention is the combination of is with a preceding reduced form of it, to produce ’tis. There are over 1,400 instances in Shakespeare, for example. The spelling varies, especially in the use of the apostrophe (t’is, ti’s), and often showing no apostrophe at all. In Middle English, the pronoun is sometimes used twice: as it tis.

Crystal continues of it tis:

This is of course a perfectly normal pronunciation in everyday colloquial speech, in all dialects (including standard English), though in writing it tends to be used as a sign of regional dialect. And the same point applies to the use of is followed by a reduced form of it: is’t, with spelling variants such as ist and i’st, as well as the reduplicated ist’t. This is much less frequent in Shakespeare—less than 200 instances. ‘Is’t possible?’ asks Hamlet.

This is just one of the many fascinating facets of the verb to be Crystal puts up to the light in his gem of book, which the publisher kindly sent me a copy to review.

story of be cover.jpeg
(OUP)

Twenty-six facets, to be precise. In The Story of Be, Crystal examines with his signature mix of affable humor and accessible insight 26 distinct uses of that most nuts-and-bolts of English words, be. “Thanks to its remarkable history,” he explains in his preface, “be developed a greater range of meanings and uses, and a wider range of forms, than any other English word—1,812, so far recorded by the OED lexicographers, both in the standard language and in regional dialects.”

Here is a quick look at some of the uses Crystal highlights, the terminology and examples taken from his chapter titles. The existential be (“to be or not to be”), the obituarial be (“as was”), the sexual be (“I’ve been with someone”), the visitational be (“Has the doctor been?”), the numerical be (“two and two is four”), the declarative be (“I live in Wales, innit?”), ludic be (“Oh no he isn’t”), befalling be (“woe is me”), lavatorial be (“Have you been?”), and even missing be (“lane closed ahead”).

Crystal is comprehensive, though I would have been interested in a chapter on what I’ll call “non-binary be.” Many individuals who are gender non-binary use singular they as their pronoun and, though referring to one person, the verb form is also usually singular, e.g., they are.

Don’t let more academic words like existential, obituarial, or ludic throw you off. While it touches on serious linguistic topics, The Story of Be reads quick and light, the short chapters exploring the various dimensions of be with fun comics and quotes that range from Beowulf to the rapper Common.

Incredible though, innit, all the things we do with be? No one quite explicitly teaches us this all this be business, either. If anything, we’re taught how not to use be, with grammar scolds and schoolmarms wrongly poo-pooing and tsk-tsking “non-standard” forms like ain’t:

Today, ain’t is considered non-standard, but it’s widespread throughout the English-speaking world—probably used far more often than the standard equivalent—and a century ago it was actually acceptable upper-class speech, turning up frequently in the novels of the period. Here’s the lawyer Mr. Wharton arguing with his sister-in-law over his daughter’s future, in Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister (1875): “I ain’t thinking of her marrying,” And towards the end of the novel the Duke of Omnium himself asks someone: “I hope you ain’t cold.”

Crystal offers up these tidbits in ten subsections he scatters through his chapters that spotlight different grammatical forms of to be: infinitive be, imperative be, I am, you are, he/she/it was, we/you/they are, I/she/he/it was, you/we/they were, present and past participial being and been, and present and past subjunctive (e.g., be it noted, if I were you).

These are my favorite parts of the book, in part because Crystal lets us glimpse the history of be’s eight very different forms, be, am, are, is, was, were, being, and been.

A quick aside, as this is an etymology blog after all. The reason for this unusual array of be verbs, Crystal explains in his prologue, is that there are “three distinct and unrelated verbs lying behind later manifestations of be” in Modern English as inherited from Proto-Indo-European. One verb produced am and is forms, related to Latin’s sum and est, respectively. This verb also yielded sie and sind in Old English, like Latin’s sunt or that very same sind in German—though are, which might also belong in this family, gradually replaced them. A second verb gave rise to be, being, and been, whose ancient root apparently had the sense of “become, grow.” A third verb, anchored in an original meaning of “remain” or “stay,” gives us was and were. Exactly how this jostling jumble of be came about is a story for another day.

These subsections are also my favorite parts because, in them, Crystal demonstrates the sheer abundance of regional, dialectical, colloquial, informal, and non-standard versions of this set of eight English’s many speakers, far and wide, past and present, have come up with. Here are a just a few in the section on I am, including negations (am not): eam, hamme, yam, ams, bium, byn, bees, cham, I’re, I’se, amn’t, ammot, ain’t, een’t, yunt, yent, ent, bee’nt, binna, izzant, idn’t, and arem’t.

Truly remarkable, and I bain’t kidding. (Bain’t! I love this language.)

’Tis the season for gift-giving, and if I were you, I would get a copy of The Story of Be for the word-lover in your life. Considering it, aintcha?

The Story of Be: A Verb’s-Eye View of the English Language
By David Crystal.
208pp. Oxford University Press. £12.99/$19.95.

m ∫ r ∫

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