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Many languages have multiple forms of the verb "to be". For example, Spanish has ser and estar, while Nepali has हो and छ. Some other examples are given in this nice blog post. My question is: what other languages have multiple forms of "to be", and what is the scope of the different forms of this verb in those languages? I searched about online and could not find too much on this beyond the above blog post, but it seems an interesting question.

Edit: To clarify, I am asking for examples of languages where at least two different verbs are used for the different meanings in the list provided by @bytebuster below. For example, while in English we use the same verb "to be" in all four cases, in Spanish we would, I think, use ser for 1, 2 (permanent properties), and 4; estar for 2 (temporary properties), 3. I hope that clarifies my question, but I am certainly no expert in linguistics, so let me know if not!

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  • Welcome, interesting question! For the sake of Linguistics SE, could you edit it and add information on how the Spanish and Nepali verbs differ from each other? This will increase the chance you'll get useful answers. – robert Sep 5 '14 at 16:44
  • Do you mean what languages have a polysemous verb of "be"? If so please edit this to make that more explicit. I thought at first you were just asking about languages with multiple inflected forms of "be". – curiousdannii Sep 5 '14 at 23:08
  • @Jimeree Can you please edit this question to clarify what exactly you're asking? – curiousdannii Sep 9 '14 at 6:05
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    @curiousdannii I've edited the question, which hopefully clarifies things. Let me know if not though! – Jimeree Sep 9 '14 at 8:53
  • ser and estar are likely to come from the same root. – Anixx Dec 9 '15 at 14:38

14 Answers 14

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There are many, indeed.

AFAIR, most of them have to be in four meanings (which are the same word in English):

  1. to be (an object x is a part of set X), e.g. "this is an apple";
  2. to be (an object x has property of y), e.g. "the box is red"
  3. to be (located at), e.g. "I am at the office";
  4. to mean, e.g. "to live is to love";

For example, Thai has เป็น and ใช่ both in meaning of (1) and (2) (somewhat overlapped — out of scope of this question), อยู่ for (3), and คือ for (4).

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    Interesting how closely your list matches some primes from NSM. According to NSM there is also "BE (in existence), "BE (an identity)" and "BE (someone's)". – curiousdannii Sep 9 '14 at 6:09
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    @curiousdannii In fact, NSM classification may supersede my answer. Please consider wrapping your comment into a full-sized answer? – bytebuster Sep 9 '14 at 6:42
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    I'm hoping the OP will clarify this question (and waiting till then), because the answers this question is collecting aren't all talking about the same phenomena: some show polysemous copulas, some suppletive copulas, and some just inflected ones. – curiousdannii Sep 9 '14 at 7:08
  • @curiousdannii Well yes, but IMO, this Q is not about inflected forms at all, considering the linked blog article. – bytebuster Sep 9 '14 at 7:30
  • I'm going to accept this since it provides a framework within which other answers can fit, as well as a nice example. – Jimeree Sep 10 '14 at 8:02
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Russian normally does not use the verb 'to be' in the Present Tense ('есть' for all numbers and persons), it just omits the verb altogether:

She is a young woman. - Она молодая женщина. - 'She young woman.'

However, in bookish style, different substitutions of 'to be' are used so as to make the text unambiguous (these are, actually, the multiple verbs for 'to be' you are asking about). Using the meanings numbering suggested by @bytebuster, which I find great, meanings #1 and #2 can be expressed by using the verb 'являться' (to be, to present oneself, to appear):

He is a criminal. - Он является преступником.

Meaning #3 is rendered by 'находиться' (to be situated) in Russian:

I am at the office. - Я нахожусь в офисе.

Meaning #4 is rendered by 'значить/означать' (to mean):

To live is to love. - Жить значит/означает любить.

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Japanese has three verbs which correspond to be:

  • imasu "be located" (of animates)

  • arimasu "be located" (of inanimates); also "exist"

  • desu "be identified as"; "have some property"

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  • です is a copula, not verb – Lưu Vĩnh Phúc Apr 5 '15 at 6:15
  • "Be" is a copula as well. – Colin Fine Apr 9 '15 at 0:23
  • Copula is something that links two parts of a phrase, but the Japanese verbs are placet at phrase endings. – Manjusri Jan 21 '18 at 4:30
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In Dutch there is "zijn" and "wezen". "Wezen" is the oldest and most informal form. Today it can no longer be used in all phrases and it is mostly used as an infinitive. "zijn" is etymologically younger, but it now dominates the other verb. It is used in the same way as 'to be' is used in English. Yet "wezen" will continue to live on, since "zijn" has no past tense of its own and has adopted the past forms of "wezen": was, waren and geweest.

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    I had similar thoughts, but it appears that the OP was not seeking cases where different conjugations of the verb happen to derive from different forms. This is in fact similar to the situation in plenty of languages including English. (am, is and be are from different roots.) – Adam Bittlingmayer Jan 22 '17 at 18:30
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Portuguese has the exact same verbs as Spanish, with the exactly same meanings: ser and estar.

As it could be expected, they are only exactly equally spelt as Spanish on their infinitive form, not when conjugated.

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    Likewise for Galician and to a large extent Asturian (uses ser/tar) and Mirandese (uses ser/star) with very similar conjugations to Spanish and Portuguese, as would be expected. – user0721090601 Jan 21 '17 at 20:10
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Interesting question and useful answers. But I'd suggest that the question should really be about the variety of non-verbal predicates across languages. (I.e. She runs. vs. She is young. or She teaches. vs. She is a teacher.)

You will find that languages (even with the Indo European family) vary greatly. Some use a copula in all cases, others only in the past or future or not at all. Some use a copula only for nouns but not adjectives. Some use a simple copula but use a case ending to express the same difference as ser/estar - so called predicate instrumental. Or to express an result such as the predicate dative. Languages differ in how they express definiteness of the non-verbal predicate (e.g. the infamous 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'). I'd say even things like the partitive genitive and other forms of predicative expressions of possession belong here. Things like subjects and locations also come into play (e.g. there is, 'it is cold to me').

In short, limiting yourself to the forms of the verb 'to be' only confuses things because it limits you to comparing things that are superficially alike and exclude things that may be more relevant.

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In Vietnamese I don't think there's a direct equivalent of to be in English, but there are some words to describe the meanings like @bytebuster said:

  1. an object x is a part of set X: , e.g. "đây quả táo" (this is an apple);
  2. an object x has property of y: thì, e.g. "cái hộp thì đỏ" (the box is red)
  3. located at: , e.g. "tôi đang văn phòng" (I am at the office);
  4. to mean, e.g. yêu là chết trong lòng một ít (a sentence in the famoust poem by Xuân Diệu) which can roughly be translated as "to love is to die a little bit in the heart";

However "thì" may not be used very often, instead they are dropped completely, for example "cái bánh này ngọt" - the cake is sweet, or "trời lạnh" - it's cold, esp. when going with exclamation words like "em đẹp lắm" - you're so beautiful!

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Polish has two forms of to be:

być

is the unmarked form, and the present tense differs from the infinitive:

jestem, jesteś, jest (I am, you are, he/she/it is)

The other form is habitual, and the present tense has the same stem as the infinitive:

bywać - bywam, bywaś, bywa

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  • BTW, the unmarked form is a relic from Aorist verbal form. – bytebuster Sep 6 '14 at 5:16
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As Anixx already wrote - the origin of "be"-verbs in nearly all Indo-European languages is multi-rooted. I came across some account of the problem in Leon Stassen, Intransitive Predication, p.97-100

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    Please explain more what Leon Stassen says. – curiousdannii Sep 12 '14 at 7:51
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Korean has two verbs:

  • ida something has a characteristics
  • issda, to exist, to be in a location for people and objects (negated by eopsda, to be absent)

Adjectives are verbs in their own right, so the phrase "A is blue" will contain a conjugation of adjective blue. They're called stative verbs, and can be thought of as containing both the adjective and the verb "to be". Since adjectives are verbs, you can't put adjectives directly next to a noun but have to make a very short attributive clause (i.e. "that-is-blue A").

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Scottish Gaelic has two different verbs "to be". As does Irish and presumably Manx. "Is" for nouns and pronouns. "Tha" for everything else. Is mi John. Tha mi sgith (tired). Both verbs are regular, and the only Gaelic verbs with a present tense.

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  • ?? Only verbs with present tense? 'Ithim' = 'I eat' sounds pretty present tense to me. Is Irish not really present tense here or are you using present tense for something I'm not expecting? – Mitch Jan 21 '17 at 19:33
  • @Mitch 'Ithim' is Irish (Gaeilge), he's talking about Scottish Gaelic. – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 21 '17 at 22:30
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Portuguese has the same verbs, ser and estar, as Spanish, with similar distinctions governing the use of either.

Basically, ser implies permanency, while estar implies transitoriety:

Eu sou doente -> I have a health condition.

Eu estou doente -> I am sick at the moment.

Such use roughly implies that ser matches acceptions 1, 2 and 4 of bytebuster's list, while estar matches acceptions 2 and 3:

to be (an object x is a part of set X), e.g. "this is an apple";

to be (an object x has property of y), e.g. "the box is red"

to be (located at), e.g. "I am at the office";

to mean, e.g. "to live is to love".

This also allows speakers to make finer distinctions if they use estar instead of ser in acception 1:

Eu não sou ministro, eu estou ministro. (literally, I am not a Minister, I am a Minister; meaning something like, "I am not a Minister like I am a Black man; I am a Minister like I am suntanned").

But it is more complicated than that, with some weird exceptions (for instance, ele está morto - he is dead - with estar instead of ser, albeit one would wonder what could be more permanent than death[1]), and the fact that both verbs are also auxiliaries, and the difference in the use of either as an auxiliary is much bigger than their differences as main verbs.

Ser is the auxiliary used in the passive voice:

Isto é fabricado no Canadá - This is manufactured in Canada.

Estar is an auxiliary used to modify tense/aspect, specifically to denote a continuous aspect:

Estou comendo alface - I am eating lettuce; a present continuous, in opposition to the simple present Eu como alface - I do eat lettuces.

[1]Albeit the more formal ele é falecido - "he is dead", or more properly "he is deceased" takes ser, as it should be, not estar


Ser is also highly irregular, taking forms from at least three different roots:

Ele será - He will be

Ele era - He used to be

Ele foi - He was.

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In Czech, the verb být (to be) is used in all four of bytebuster's senses (constructions like 4 are not really common, I'd say that znamenat (to mean) is used in such cases, but there are very sparse examples in the Czech National Corpus).

However, být may be used with different valency; specifically, when used as a copula, the nominal part is usually in the nominative:

To       je můj    bratr.
That.NOM is my.NOM brother.NOM.

Jsme   přátelé.
be.1PL friends.NOM
We're  friends.

However, when used with a complement or when denoting transitional states, the nominal may appear in the instrumental instead:

Dva roky  byl       novinářem.
Two years was.3SG-M journalist.INS
He was a journalist for two years.

Examples adapted from Stručná mluvnice česká (Concise grammar of Czech) by B. Havránek and A. Jedlička.

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In most Indo-European languages the forms of the verb "to be" had developed from at least two stems.

bheua̯ti "develops into, becomes"

e̯esti "is"

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    source, please? – sergiol Sep 9 '14 at 22:49

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