Wednesday 10 April 2013

The Verb 'To Be' In Different Languages

Arguably the most essential if not important verb in the English language, the variations of the verb 'to be' in other languages can indicate how the speakers think; in other words, how foreigners value and define existence or 'being'. Whether it's language that influences culture, or the other way round, I attempted to draw some likely conclusions about where we differ from other nations.

Russian: быть/есть
Although the main verb Russians use for 'to be' (быть) has a past and future tense, the Russian language famously has no present tense for the verb 'to be'. Instead, pronouns and adjectives go directly together:

Я студент - Ya studyent - I am a student

The verb 'есть', which means 'to be/to eat' is used to mean 'there is/there are', like the Spanish 'hay':

Там есть три девушки - Tam est' tri devushki - There are three girls

Additionally, instead of saying 'I have', using the verb 'иметь', you say 'to me there is':

У меня есть мечта - U menya est' mechta - I have a dream

It's interesting that there is an association in Russian between being and eating, especially for a country not known for its cuisine, although perhaps the link is the need to eat for survival. There is also less of a sense of direct ownership of an object or, as in the above example, product of your mind. The language implies that it exists independently and uses the object of the sentence, whoever the person may be, as a medium. The fact that 'быть' lacks a present tense means that a person or thing can be defined entirely by an adjective, or noun like their occupation. All of these linguistic aspects are particularly interesting considering the influence on or of the Soviet Union - increased susceptibility to Communism or a lingering effect of it?

Spanish: ser/estar
Similar to Italian (stare/essere); Portuguese (ser/estar); Catalan (ser~sser/estar)

The Spanish language differentiates between two types of being, largely between the permanent 'ser' and the temporary 'estar':


  • Elements relevant to identity: physical features (animate and inanimate things), personality, nationality, race, religion, gender, profession, origin, material - Soy inglesa (I am English) 
  • Possession - Es la mía (It's mine) 
  • Events or dates: days, months, years, festivals, parties, lessons etc - Hoy es lunes (Today is Monday)
  • States of being: emotions, physical appearance or condition (health), marital status - Estoy triste (I am sad) 
  • Location of things, buildings, people: La universidad está aquí (The university is here). 
  • With a gerund: Estoy leyendo/jugando/creciendo (I am reading/playing/growing) 
To an English speaker, it can be surprising to hear that Latin languages see things that we would usually consider to be permanent, like marriage and the site of buildings, to be temporary states of being, especially since divorce contravenes the main religion of a lot of the countries where these languages are spoken. Nevertheless, perhaps seeing marriage as a civil state rather than an aspect of your character is a good thing.

There are some phrases in which you can use 'ser' or 'estar' to alter the meaning of the sentence, eg. with 'gorde' (fat). 'Soy gordo' is a permanent physical description, whereas 'Estoy gordo' implies putting on weight temporarily, such as after Christmas. If only English had such tactful devices, perhaps we wouldn't have to be so deliberately polite all the time.

There are two verbs for 'to be' in Mandarin: '是' (shi - neutral tone), which suggests a relationship of identity (I am a doctor); '在' (zài - fourth tone), which indicates location. Mandarin has four tones:

1: Level Tone (ping) –> –
2: Rising Tone (shang) –> /
3: Departing Tone (qu) –> V
4: Entering/Stop-Final Tone (ru) –> \

This means it's easy to confuse the verb 'shi' with '吃' (chī), which means 'to eat'. If you're a real newcomer to Mandarin, you can also confuse it with '說' (shuo), 'to speak'. These are clearly different to native speakers, but it's nice to think that being, eating and speaking came from the same root.

Obviously, Chinese is a pictoral language and functions differently to Japanese in that every word has a different character, composed of elements associated with the destination word. For example, the word for bank '銀行' is composed of two words:
銀 (yín) – silver
行 (háng) – all right; capable; competent; ok; okay; to go; to do; to travel; temporary; to walk.

**For anyone interested, there are some beautiful descriptions of the imagery in Chinese characters in Chinese Cinderella.**

Rather than reading in the widespread sense of decoding letters to make a word in your head, the Chinese are given a pictoral representation. In this case, 'bank' has connotations of money and security - a far cry from its contemporary associations in the West.

Gramatically, Mandarin functions in a similar way: infinitives do not conjugate, but are placed next to words that infer a tense (jiang = future tense). However, a simpler way to change tense is just to use adverbs of time like 昨天 (zuótiān - yesterday). I really like that infinitives are unmodified and kept separate from words that convey the specific meaning. Chinese speakers must have a greater sense of actions - eat, pray, love (ha), speak, be - going on forever through generations, indifferent and essentially the same.

Hebrew: להיות
Like other Semitic languages (Arabic is the big one), Hebrew does not have a verb 'to be' in the present tense, although it declines in other tenses. One theory about the tetragrammaton YHVH, used to refer to God in Hebrew, is that it is a combination of these three words:

היה Haya- was
הוא Hove- is
יהיה Yihiye- will be

This gives the name for God an eternal quality; it is often translated in the Bible as 'I am the one who Is, Has Been, Will Be'. It's not really surprising that for Semitic languages, God is associated with the highest form of being, or that the present "being" of earthly things was unimportant. See Communist Russia for how this kind of thinking can go very wrong.

The verb 'to be' doesn't exist in the Turkish language. Instead, suffixes are added to nouns, adjectives and adverbs to give the meanings of 'I am, they are, you were' etc:

bir vazodur - it is a vase.
bir vazoydu - it was a vase. 

Türk'türler - they are Turkish.
Türk'tüler - they were Turkish.

There is also a verb 'olmak' which means primarily:

'to become, to exist, to come into being'
'to happen, to occur, to take place'
and thirdly:
'to be' (to have/fill a position/place or to show [...] characteristic)

Although it can appear in infinitives as an auxiliary verb, ie 'Kel olmak' (to be bald), it's only conjugated in a few situations of "occurence":

What happened? - Ne oldu
What is happening? - ne oluyor
Maybe for Turkish speakers, existence is so obvious it doesn't need to be stressed?

Japanese has different versions of 'to be' depending on the status of the subject. 'ある' (aru) is used for inanimate objects and plants while 'いる' (iru) is used for animals and humans. There are also copula verbs "da (だ)"/"desu (です) that translate as 'are/is/were' etc. I read about a very polite form used for an unknown person or someone with a higher status, but I couldn't find anything more specific. However, the fact that even Japanese grammar discerns between higher and lower being as related to status is not that surprising considering how important status is to the culture. Google bowing, social norms and saving face in Japan for further insight.

Greenlandic is in the Eskimo language family and can convey what would be entire sentences in most languages, in single words. It is a 'polysynthetic' language, which means words are made up of a root, a suffix and one or more affixes. Some irrelevant, but charming words in Greenlandic are: computer - 'qarasaasiaq' (artificial brain), and potato - 'naatsiiat' (something for which one waits for a long time to grow up). Adorable!

There are many ways to convey the verb 'to be' in Greenlandic:

ippoq - are (only used with qanoq, ima, taama, -/+mi (inessive), soorlu and -/+ tut (aekvalis). It often seems like an affix.

1 - Qanoq ippit? How are you?
2 - Imaappoq or taama ippoq It is like this (I now want to say or show)
3 - Taamaappa? or taama ippa? Is it like that? (you just said or showed)

Tassa - it is (introducing)

1 - Tassa illorput It is our house
2 - Ivalu tassa anaanaga Ivalu is my mother

-uvoq, +uvoq, -avoq, -juvoq: an affix for the characteristic of the mentioned object

1 - Illuuvoq It is a house
2 - Anaanaavoq She is a mother

-uvoq, tassa and +una do not mean the same thing:

1 - Nakorsaavoq She is a doctor
2 - Tassa nakorsaq It is a doctor, it is the doctor (she's coming now)
3 - Nakorsaruna It is a doctor, it is the doctor (that you can see or are talking about)

-gaa (-givaa), -raa (-rivaa) - have him to.., he/it is his
This affix expresses the characteristic of the mentioned object more than tassa does

1 - Illugaarput or illugivarput It is our house [We have it to house]
2 - Anaanagaara or anaanagivara She is my mother [I have her to mother]

+una (sing.), +uku (plural) - it is, is it?
Words with these affixes are written by adding "-" or by assimilation (like the pronunciation)

1 - Ujarak-una or ujaranguna It is a stone

I would guess that, not just specifically with the verb 'to be', speakers of Greenlandic have a greater sense of the unity of things or aspects that are inseparable from the whole. It is interesting how, rather than a conjugating verb 'to be', they have wholly different affixes that seem to change according to the relation of the subject to the speaker...but the language is so alien to me, it's hard to even speculate.

Esperanto: esti
Esperanto seemed like a good example to end with, both for being a deliberately constructed language and for having aspects of all common world languages. Its grammar is comparatively simple and verbs do not change form according to the subject: I am, he is, we are become mi estas, li estas, ni estas. Even in English, in which a lot of conjugations aren't affected by the subject, the verb to be is irregular. Obviously, Esperanto is constructed and hasn't had thousands of years of being spoken, which warps most other languages' commonly used verbs. 
*Disclaimer: I only speak two of the above languages and can shakily read the Hebrew alphabet. Any mistakes are the result of my faulty research! However, this was a labour of love.


  1. In Spanish there's a little mistake in the word "gorde". It is "gordo/a." :)

  2. iLo hice dos veces! Que verguenza, ahora todo está corregido

  3. Hello aromyofonesown,
    I was reading your blog and I found your article very interesting. Is it ok to add it to our new website if we show your information and a link to your blog?

  4. Hi Rainer, please do! I'd definitely appreciate the blog link and personal information. Glad you liked it.

  5. As a Chinese I'd like to correct something about tones. "ru"/Entering/Stop-Final Tone does not exist in Mandarin (although in Cantonese and some other variants of Chinese Languages ). The forth tone is falling tone (\), called "qu". The Third tone (V) is called "shang", which is going down and then up. The first (-) and the second (/) are both called "ping". Flat (-) is "yinping", raising(/) is "yangping". The four tones of "ping shang qu ru" is of ancient Chinese, not Mandarin.

  6. You mentioned there is an association between the verb to be and to eat in Russian. That is true, but in German it is more evident: "Der Mann ist was er isst." (The man is what he eats). the words "ist" and "isst" sounds alike.

  7. What about Korean 이다 and 있다?

  8. There is no "association" in Russian between being and eating. Etymologically, they are unrelated. They are homonyms. How could you jump to such a ridiculous conclusion?

  9. Hi @aromyofonesown
    My students will love your clear explanation and comparison between English and Spanish uses of BE.
    Thank you.