In the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, I spent some time with a colleague who liked to be "philosophical", to discuss about random concepts. One day, I suggested a question (but we ended up never discussing much about it) to him, which is the topic of this post: "what is 'to be' something?" [see below for a discussion on how this question was badly translated into English]. As the time goes, I often come back to this question. This post is about random stuff I thought about it.
On the "Romance copula"When I asked this friend, I said it in Portuguese (naturally, since I was in Brazil -- and no one in his full mental health would be speaking in English there unless there is a very good reason for it). This has some "hairy" implications, which justify making a detour on the main topic and talking about how our verb for "to be" evolved.
[the Wikipedia has a full article on this topic, but I recommend a grain of salt: the Portuguese part has at least one example sentence that I don't like, "confusing" copula with the passive]
As (I suppose) you know, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian (and many other languages) descend from Latin. As any Indo-European language (besides English =P), verbs in Latin could assume many forms. Because of that, it was easy to confuse conjugations of one verb as if they were part of some other (or simply not using some conjugation because it "didn't sound" well). Through time, three verbs gave birth to "to be" in the Romance Languages: sedere, esse and stare. I want to talk a little about these verbs:
- sedere: apparently, it meant "to sit". There is another verb related to it, sidere, which meant "to sit down". I was taking a look at their etimologies and comparing them to the opposition between setzen and sitzen in German (and set and sit in English) and apparently they are all cognates (but I'm not sure -- will have to take a better look at the Wiktionary).
For our purposes, what matters is that this verb merged with the third one, esse and generated a lot of its conjugations.
- stare: "to stay", or "to stand". Stare is a very interesting verb. Its past participle was status, and gave birth to English's state and it is even cognate with English stand and German stehen. Words like instance or circumstances are also derived from its active present participle.
In Latin, it was possible to sometimes use stare in places where esse should be used, but apart from these cases, it didn't normally have (as far as I know) the meaning of to be.
- esse: this was the verb for "to be" in Latin. But notice also other words that this verb created. From its active present participle, the word essentia gave birth to essence and essential. A corrupted version of the active present participle, ens, created things like entity.
- ser: descendent of a mixture between sedere and esse, this to be is more related to the "essence" of what is being talked about. If I say "I am (ser) happy", this means I am a happy person. It doesn't mean I can't get unhappy for a moment, but it means that "overall" I am happy.
- estar: direct descendant from stare, but with a different meaning. This to be is more related to the "state" of what is being talked about. If I say "I am (estar) happy", this means I am currently (at this moment) happy, because, e.g., the sun is shining or I ate a good lasagna.
Another possible way of viewing it
Something that disturbs me a litte is how loose our use of this "essence vs. state" difference is in Portuguese. Instead of (or in addition to) this difference, people often refer to another opposition: that of "permanence vs. state". But...
When I say I am alive, I use estar. If I say I am (ser) alive, then it sounds like (i.e., it is a slang for) I am always careful not to be fooled. Analogally, I say my grandfather is (estar) dead, but he obviously can't change his state of being dead.
It becomes actually worse because I can say someone is (ser) dead, and it sounds to me either that he is always "down", "slow", in a terrible mood; or that he is (and won't ever not be) a dead being (like a zombie, or something).
And to confuse the non-native speaker, there is actually even an expression, agora Inês é morta (i.e., "now Inês is (ser) dead"), meaning now it is too late, which uses ser for the dead state of Inês (a woman).
A humble answerWhen I was a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandma. Sometimes, in order to make us (children) eat something, she would tell us some lies. I.e., she would say there is no something
Immediately, the other adults would look at me and tell me something along the lines of "aren't you ashamed of calling your grandma a lier?". For me, it was not the case. I was not saying she is (ser) a lier: I was saying she is (estar) lying [though the lie is (ser) a lie]. She would be (ser) a lier only if she did it all the time (which actually she did......... but oh well :v ).
Here in Kaiserslautern, I made a friend I rarely can trust to be punctual. While initially I would say he only was (estar) unpunctual, through time I started simply accepting that this is who he is (ser). When I complained to him about his problem, I recalled the question (topic of this post). Basically, I told the same: if a person lies only once or twice, I can't say he is (ser) a lier, but only that (probably) the circunstances led him to lie; but if a person lies all the time, then this characteristic becomes part of his "essence", and now he is (ser) someone who lies.
So, well... I don't believe this is actually very useful [it was only an excuse to talk a lot about these words], but this is just a humble answer.
And... what are (ser) we actually?
|We are so transitory that we are (ser) not: we are (estar).|
[a friend posted this in Facebook some time ago]
Something I have been thinking about now is that we often change our state. And this is expectable, right? It is just a state. In fact, I will post below my all time favorite Ted Talk, on how simply changing small body behaviors could help one to change a lot in how the body is functioning:
But it seems to me that we are often also capable of changing our essence (she herself in video above says "fake it until you become it" -- in opposition to "fake it until you make it"). What I am (ser) now doesn't necessarily is what I will become soon. Though I am (ser) currently a Portuguese speaker, nothing prevents me from (Deus o livre*) having an accident and completely forgetting the language, which would make me stop being (ser) a Portuguese speaker.
This can also happen in the opposite direction. Four years ago I wouldn't consider myself a Spanish speaker. Nowadays, I do say I am (ser) a [at least okay] Spanish speaker. Hopefully, in the next years, I will also become a Hindi speaker.
All of this makes me think of how much whatever our "essence" is keeps changing. One could think he is (ser) not intelligent, but through time and hard work change this belief (and/or actually even become intelligent?). It seems that if we think we are (ser) something (and, because it is our "essence", we can't change it) we end up embracing this something, and maybe even (if we actually weren't) becoming it. And conversely, if we think we are (state) something, then we feel capable enough of changing it.
Of course, I am not saying you can grow some height (if you are short), or change your skin color (though some rich and popular guy from the last century tried it); but there are things you for sure can change. And this reminded me, actually, of a Ted Talk on Mindset (some concept developed by some researchers in Stanford, apparently) I saw some time ago:
Well... that is it. I wanted to only share these ideas. I don't think they are in any way "groundbreaking" or "new", but I thought it would be a nice reminder that they exist =)
* I searched for a link to send you, reader, to understand this, and didn't find any. I couldn't believe. It means literally "God free him [of whatever is gonna be said]", and one often says that before saying something hipothetical situation in which something bad happens. It is also used in other contexts (e.g., if I do something really incredible, I myself would say it; or also if someone eats a lot and we want to express that the person doesn't ever stop eating -- though in this case I'd also use "benza Deus", i.e., something like "may God bless [him/you]"). I had never thought how strongly religious these expressions sound... HUEHUEAHUEA