Etymology Grammar Linguistics

To “be,” or not to “be”

Q: I want to use “Where be thy jewels?” in a poem set in Elizabethan times. I know “be” is now regarded as incorrect. Was it correct then? I don’t like throwing around the words “correct” and “incorrect,” but I do like being accurate.

A: We agree with you that people should be careful about using words like “correct” and “incorrect” where language is concerned, though sometimes we have to take a position one way or the other.

As we’ve noted many times on the blog, a usage that’s frowned upon today may have been perfectly acceptable a few hundred years ago.

In answer to your question, the unadorned verb “be” was used in place of  “am,” “is,” or “are” at various times in history.

One of those times, it turns out, was the Elizabethan age. So, yes, it would be historically accurate to use “Where be thy jewels?” in your poem.

Shakespeare (1564-1616), that most famous Elizabethan, used “be” for “are” quite a bit. These are only a few examples:

“Where be thy brothers?” (King Richard III); “Where  be your powers?” (King John); “Where be my horses?” (Merry Wives of Windsor); “Where be these bloody thieves?” (Othello).

Such uses of “be” were common in Old English and date back into the 800s, according to examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although this kind of “be” was rare during most of the Middle English period (1100-1500), it came to life again in the late 1300s. Chaucer, for example, used “we be” around 1385.

In fact, the OED has citations from Chaucer’s time until well into the 19th century for the use of “be” in place of “am,” “is,” or “are.” Here are some 19th-century examples of “be” in action:

1820, in Byron’s Marino Faliero: “And who be they?”

1861, in Thackeray’s The Four Georges: “Where be your painted houris?”

1864, in Tennyson’s Northern Farmer: “I beänt a fool.”

And on the other side of the Atlantic, the American lexicographer Noah Webster writes in his Dissertations on the English Language (1789): “The verb be … is still used after the ancient manner, I be, you be, we be, they be.”

As for today, the OED says, this usage is obsolete. But while it’s now considered nonstandard, it lives on and can still be heard in dialects spoken in both England and the United States.

In England, the OED says, this use of “be” (or the variants “beest,” “be’st,” and “beth”) occurs widely in some dialects, mostly in the southern and midland regions.

“The negative I ben’t, beant, baint is even more widely used dialectally,” the OED says.

In our own country, the Dictionary of American Regional English has collected scores of 20th-century examples of the nonstandard use of “be.”

They were recorded among both blacks and whites, mostly in the South, the southern Midwest, and the Northeast.

How did this now obsolete use of “be” come about?

First, it’s important to know that the verb “be” started out as three different verbs of Germanic origin: “be,” “am,” and “was.”

These eventually were combined under the umbrella of the infinitive “be,” but the various tenses and conjugations took centuries to sort themselves out.

For example, “are” originated in the north of England and didn’t make its way south, and thus into standard English, until the early 1500s.

However, the OED says, “be continued in concurrent use till the end of the century (see Shakespeare, and Bible of 1611).”

In England today, the OED notes, “the regular modern Eng. plural is are, which now tends to oust be even from the subjunctive. Southern and eastern dialect speech retains be both in singular and plural, as ‘I be a going,’ ‘we be ready.’ ”

By the way, don’t confuse the obsolete use of “be” we’re discussing here with the “be” that’s used in the subjunctive mood, as in “I asked that I be excused.”

We’ve written on the blog about the subjunctive, which is losing ground in British English (as the OED notes) but is holding its own (for now) in standard American English.

In short, “be” (along with similar forms like “beest,” “be’st,” “beth,” and so forth) was once “correct” for singular as well as plural in the first, second, and third person present indicative.

And “be” (along with its cousins) is still being used that way dialectally in the US and England.

Finally, the obsolete use of “be” for “are” lives on not only in dialect but also in the familiar expression “the powers that be.”

Check out our books about the English language