Béon or Ne Béon (To Be or Not To Be)

Thursday, December 17, 2009
I've found a fascinating web site that offers translation of Old English (a.k.a. Anglo Saxon) into Modern English and vice versa. It's called Old English Translator. Below is the conjugation of béon, the verb "to be."

Present & Preterite Indicative
• Ic béo (I am) — Ic wæs (I was)
• þu bist (you are) — þu wære (you were)
• he/hit/heo biþ (he/it/she is) — he/hit/heo wæs (you were)
• we/ge/hie béoþ (we/ye/they are) — we/ge/hie wæron (we/ye/they were)

Present & Preterite Subjunctive
• singular: béowære
• plural: béonwæren

Present Participle (...ing) & Past Participle (...ed)
béonde — [n/a]

Imperative (direct command)
• singular: béo
• plural: béoþ

Inflected Infinitive
• to béonne

Second Person Present Indicative, among other attributes, really highlights the Germanic roots of English. Compare þu bist (Old English — you are), which can also be written as ðu bist, with the modern German du bist. Look also at Third Person Plural Preterite Subjunctive we wæron (Old English — we were), compared with wir waren (German).

English contains a vocabulary that is in triplicate, one set of words that is Anglo Saxon (this being its Germanic roots — e.g., kingly), one set of words that is French in origin (from Norman and Anglo French — e.g., royal), and one set of words that is Latin in origin (e.g., regal). Thesaurus.com shows that kingly, royal, and regal are all synonymous; only their etymologies differ.

The following, from Wikipedia, is note-worthy:

Although the syntax of German is significantly different from that of English and other Germanic languages, with different rules for setting up sentences (for example, German Ich habe noch nie etwas auf dem Platz gesehen, vs. English "I have still never seen anything in the square"), English syntax remains extremely similar to that of the North Germanic languages, which are believed to have influenced English syntax during the Middle English Period (eg., Norwegian Jeg har likevel aldri sett noe i torget; Swedish Jag har ännu aldrig sett något på torget). It is for this reason that despite a lack of mutual intelligibility, English-speakers and Scandinavians can learn each others' languages relatively easily, although, as English is a far more important language, most such language mastery is one-way (i.e., Scandinavians learning English).

Regarding the syntax comparison mentioned above, the syntax of English is SVO (subject/verb/object — I / kicked / the ball) whereas the syntax of German is SOV (subject/object/verb — Ich / den Ball / trat).

A comparison of thou art/thou wert, an early form of Modern English,¹ with the modern Icelandic² þú ert/þú varst is interesting (Icelandic is related to the Scandinavian languages). In this light, Icelandic can be seen as reflective of early Modern English, while the Scandinavian languages bear a somewhat closer resemblance to German.

(German: du bist/du warst. Old English/Anglo Saxon: þu bist/þu wære. Early Modern English: thou art/thou wert. Icelandic: þú ert/þú varst. Swedish: du är/du var. Norwegian: du er/du var. Modern English: you are/you were. Technically, Modern English substitutes, universally, the archaic Second Person Singular [pronoun, nominative thou; possessive thy or thine; objective thee] with the Third Person Plural [nominative you or the archaic ye; possessive your or yours; objective you or the archaic ye]. It is also interesting that the Old English/Anglo Saxon Second Person Plural Accusative or Dative éow, which — to my eyes and ears — bears a phonetic resemblance to the pronunciation of you; and the Second Person Plural Genitive éower, bears the same resemblance to your; and a similar resemblance is found with the First Person Plural Genitive úre, your.)

¹ Thou art/thou wert, the equivalent to you are/you were (about the time of Elizabeth I, AD 1558–1603, and William Shakespeare, circa AD 1564–1616), is an early form of Modern English, which started barely a century after the period of Middle English, which ended circa AD 1470.
² The Icelandic thorn, þ, is equivalent to the unvoiced th in English (i.e., the th in thing and thought is unvoiced, as compared to the voiced th in the and though).

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