It is a small word. Two letters, one syllable. Yet “be” has more versions and is used more frequently than any other word in the English language. David Crystal’s latest book considers all its different uses in a lighthearted, humorous, easy-to-read style that can be enjoyed by everyone, from linguists to crossword fanatics, and people who just generally enjoy reading.
The Story of Be is divided into 26 chapters, each chapter linked to a particular usage of the verb. As the title suggests, the book builds a narrative around “to be”, making it at times seem more like a fictional novel then a factual text. As with many novels, Crystal’s book opens with a prologue which not only draws the reader in, but resonates with the ancient origins of the verb, providing us with some very fascinating facts.
In the beginning
… were three verbs.
This is a clever opening, The first actual word of the book, not including the chapter heading, is the past tense of “to be”. Not only is it a fitting beginning, but it also shows how the verb subconsciously slips into language, being a basic building block in sentences, so subtle we don’t notice it’s there. The story of “be” becomes engrossing and fascinating as we learn that the three verbs, all in Sanscrit (the Indo European language known as the ancestral parent of modern languages), were behind later manifestations of “be” which all appear in Modern English: am, be and were.
From here, Crystal takes us through the existential, obitural and temporal forms of be, using examples from a range of sources including Hamlet, Austen, 19th century guidebooks in etiquette, and contemporary comics. Crystal also mentions a dead parrot there as well, which “is no more” and “has ceased to be” (a Monty Python reference!). From this point, he moves on to temporal uses: (Has the doctor been? Woe is me), to dialect variations: ain’t, we wuz, what have ‘ee been up to, innit, and the quotative be, of which the most used form amongst young people today is: “I was like, wow”.
The closing chapters reflect on the most common uses of the verb. Increasingly in the past decade, shortcuts are used in text, be it text messages, emails, adverts, or road signs, to cut down on unnecessary words and concentrate language into short, snappy meanings. Contemporary life is about saving time, and that is reflected in the “missing be.” “On train” is easier and faster to write than “I am on the train”; headlines say “Minister attacked” instead of “Minister was attacked”. Even Disney’s contribution is featured: “I, Tarzan. You, Jane.”
The closing chapter settles on the most recent expression, deriving from North America: the summative “is all”. “The intention is to turn a negative situation into a positive one”. Very fittingly, these are also the last words of the book.
The Story of Be is an entertaining and educational read, successfully covering all the different uses of the verb along with a rich bank of examples. It tends to remain on the surface, never discussing in detail the etymological and linguistic origins of the verb forms. Evidently, this is merely the tip of the veritable iceberg that is The Story of Be.
Written by Josephine Greenland
Publishers: OUP Oxford
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham