The verb ‘to be’ is one of the most fundamental and most complex in most Indo-European languages. It often functions as a lexical verb ‘to exist’, an auxiliary in forming other verbs (e.g. I am singing) and as a copula (e.g. I am hungry). In the modern Celtic languages it is used extensively as a way of forming simple verbs (e.g ta mee tioggal ‘I understand’, dw i’n dy garu di ‘I love you’); it is also essential for forming the possessive idiom (e.g. tha bó aig Iain ‘John has a cow’).
Below, the forms of the Brythonic and Goidelic verbs are given separately with a discussion of their history and use.
yw, eus, usi
zo, eo, eus
- The Brythonic ‘to be’ is largely constructed by analogy with the regular verbs. The PC. stem *bij- is used extensively with regular endings to create tenses which did not occur in PC and may have been re-analysed again later (e.g. Br. *bijame > byddaf, by analogy byddwn etc). PC *bij- is just one of several stems which come from PIE. *bʰuH-, which also gives E. be, L. fui.
- The verb noun is from PC. *butā. C. bones is formed by analogy to mynnes ‘go’. B. bezañ is a regular formation from the stem bez, but the form bout also exists.
- The present indicative is formed from the PIE copula in *es- (cf. E. is, L. est). The plurals are for PC. *esmes, *este, *senti with the 2nd plural reformed on the basis of regular verbs. The existence of original h- on W. ŷnt is shown by MW. yttynt with provection. The development of the singular forms is not properly known, but W. *wy- probably derives from Br. *ē- < *ese-. 3rd singular WC. yw, B. eo is the same with metathesis. The W. impersonal ys shows the original PIE 3rd singular *esti.
- In each of the Brythonic languages, there are several forms of the 3rd person singular:
- WC. yw, B. eo are used as the copula when the complement precedes the verb.
- W. oes, CB. eus are used in negative and interrogative sentences when the subject is indefinite.
- C. usi is used in negative and interrogative sentences when the subject is definite (W & B use yw, eo).
- The Breton locative forms are an extension of the original verb emañ. This and its W & C. cognates originally seem to have been a form of the 3rd singular present reserved for use with prepositions etc (note W. ble mae ‘where is?’). Its use as an auxiliary verb has led to it becoming the most commonly used form of the verb in Welsh (e.g. mae Twm yn cysgu ‘Tom is sleeping’).
- The origins of this verb are not known for sure. One suggestion is PC. *esmi est ‘here is’ > *emmijest > *ymoedd > ymae, but *emmijest ought to yield W. *ymydd as *dijen (Acc.) yields dydd. B. emañ points to a nasal ending and a possible connection with amañ ‘there’, -mañ ‘this’ (W. yma, MW. yman, C. omma), which may be PC. * esmi anda (cf. IG. ann ‘there’). It is possible that more than one ending is at work here, or that Breton was altered by association with amañ. Welsh could be from PC. *esmi esV- (where esV- represents some form of the verb) > *ehmi ehV- > *emme ɛ̄- > *ym-oe > ymae (cf. PC. *swesūr > *hwehīr > *hwɛ̄īr > *hwɛ̄r > *hwoer > W. chwaer,C. hwor,B. c’hoar ‘sister’).
- Welsh has alternative forms of the present with yd- (e.g. ydwyf, ydyw), though it adds no additional information. Cornish has 1st and 2nd persons forms with es- (e.g. esov, esowgh), which are considered to be part of the conjugation of yma. These ‘long forms’ are substantive verbs (showing where something is or what it’s doing), as opposed to the copula (which shows what something is).
- The origin of W. yd-, C. es- is rather confused. It seems originally to have been the verbal particle (W. y(r), C. y(th), B. e(z)), which occurs in OW. and OB. as it (= W. yd). At some point this became fused to the W & C. verbs under certain conditions. Once the form was fused, the independent particle came to viewed separately. In Cornish, it may be added before the ‘long forms’ (e.g. yth esov ‘I am’). In Welsh, the particle became yr from the 14th century and the forms yr wyf and ydwyf etc. were limited to different environments. To confuse matters further, the y of y mae came to be seen as a form of yr and became optional. Cornish seems to preserve the original particle in the ‘long’ impersonal eder.
- In Breton, the verbal particle e (ez, ec’h) appears to have remained as such, except before 3rd singular forms of mont ‘go’ where it appears as y- (e.g. yelo ‘he will go’) – a late development. However, it is possible that the imperfect locative forms were originally imperfect indicative forms with a particle *ed preceding (e.g *ed oan ‘I was (there)’ > edon).
- As well as the literary forms given above, Welsh also has a number of colloquial forms. In the present these are dw, wyt, mae, dan, dach, maen in the North and rw, wyt, mae, ŷn, ych, maen in the South. Initial d- or r- is from the particle yd-, yr; dw i ‘I am’ is for ydwyf i. Revived Late Cornish also has alternative forms: th om, th os, th ew, th on, th o’, th ens or th o’vy, th o’chy, th ew e’/hei, th o’nei, th o’hwei, th en’jei. These are from the particle yth + the verb (+ the pronoun).
- Welsh has a special present relative: ysydd ‘that is’, usually shortened to sydd or even sy’ today. This comes from the PC. *estijo, with the subordinating clitic -jo seen in Gaulish. Cornish usi may also originate here and still retains a relative sense (e.g. tynneuch an gasadow, usy ow cûl fals dewow, yn mês agan temple ny ‘drag the wretched woman, who is making false gods, out of our temple’). The Breton zo is used in a similar way, when the subject precedes the verb (e.g. me a zo ‘I am’), but always with the relative pronoun and is probably from the same source.
- Welsh also has two subordinating forms of ‘to be’: taw and mai ‘that it is’ (e.g. Gwybyddwch mai yr Arglwydd sydd Dduw ‘Know that it is the Lord who is God’.). Mai is another form of y mae. Taw, which is only used in the south, is from PC. *(s)tā (cf. I. tá, Spanish estar, E. stand).
- The imperfect indicative is probably, like the present, derived from PIE. *es-. The 3rd singular may be from PC. *esāt, but this is not certain. In any case the rest of the tense is formed by analogy on the 3rd singular.
- The past, pluperfect and subjunctive tenses are all based on that original PIE. b- stem; in each case, the tense is created analogically from the 3rd singular. The B. conditional tenses are regular; the present probably based on bez and the past probably on the original 3rd singular, equivalent to W. bai, C. be.
- In both Breton and Cornish, special forms of ‘to be’ have developed with the meaning ‘to have’. The present tenses are given below:
- Breton endevout, kaout: am eus, ac’h eus, en/he deus, hon eus, hoc’h eus, o deus.
- Cornish kavas: y’m beus, y’th eus, y’n jeves/y’s teves, y’gan beus, y’gas beus, y’s teves.
- The verb consists of the particle (B. e, C. y)+ infixed pronoun + 3rd singular ‘to be‘, or prefixed pronoun + 3rd singular ‘to be’ (Breton only has infixed pronouns for 1st & 2nd singular).
- The semantics are based on the common Brythonic practice of using the accusative case to mark the indirect object of an intransitive verb. The normal possessive structure in Celtic is to use ‘to be’ with a preposition: W. mae imi dri o blant ‘I have 3 children’, lit. ‘there are three children to me’. Here, ‘me’ is the indirect object of ‘to be’, but since ‘to be’ can’t take a direct object, the accusative alone suffices: y’th eus therefore means ‘it is [to] you’ = ‘you have’. Welsh preserves an almost identical structure in the imperative moes ‘give me!’ < PC. moi esti.
- The verb nouns kaout and kavas are the equivalent of W. cael, cafael ‘to have, get, find’. B. endevout would appear to be en- ‘in’, or possibly the reflexive prefix (W. ym-), or thepronoun en ‘he’ + de- ‘to’ + bout ‘to be’ (cf. W. dyfod, C. devos ‘come’).
- B. am eus, ac’h eus are alternatives to em eus, ec’h eus, which are the more correct forms. The 2nd singular ac’h occurs only in the present (other tenses have the expected az) – it may be an attempt to distinguish from the particle ez before the vowel (cf. en ez eus tud ‘there are people there’).
- C. beus is a back-formation on eus based on the other tenses in b-, as shown by correct y’th eus. Compare the imperfect y’m bo ‘I had’, y’th o ‘you had’ < o ‘was’. The real b- tenses all have correctly mutated b > f (e.g. y’ fydh ‘you will have’).
- 3rd person forms in both Breton and Cornish have de- ‘to’ prefixed (cf. prepositions, which also have ‘to’ infixed in the third person: B. anezhi, C. anedhi ‘of her’ vs. B. ac’hanon, C. ahanav ‘of me’). In Breton it is added directly to eus, but in Cornish it is added to a reduced form of beus (cf. Jenner’s am bes ‘I have’, an jeves ‘he has’).
- The remaining tenses are formed much like the present.
- The Breton conditional present appears to preserve the original form of befe ‘[if] it is’ as be (W. bai, C. be?). The forms em pe, az pe etc. occur alongside regular am befe, az befe. 3rd person defe may be for original *deve, altered in accordance with the regular conditional ending -fe. The Cornish subjunctive y’n jeffo ‘may he have’, y’n jeffa ‘would that he had’ similarly has the regular devoicing of subjunctive stems, as if the stem was *def-, dev- with the regular ending. This is carried further in the Breton imperative, where the irregular forms en defet, o defent occur beside expected devezet. Ho pet ‘you, have!’ may preserve the original 2nd plural imperative seen in W. bid.
- The Goidelic languages have separate substantive and copular verbs:
- The substantive is used to link the subject with an adjective or to describe a temporary state
- The copula is used to link the subject with a noun or pronoun, or to describe a permanent state
- In the substantive verb G. & M. generally use the 3rd singular for all persons (e.g. M. ta mee ‘I am’). In Irish, however, most tenses have special forms for the 1st person singular and plural, using the 3rd singular in all other cases (e.g. táim ‘I am’, táimid ‘we are’). These 1st person forms are not direct ancestors of the OI conjugation, but later reformations based on the adjacent pronoun (e.g. tá mé > táim).
- Irish also makes use of the autonomous verb (e.g. táthar), which is the exact equivalent of the W. impersonal.
- Several tenses have both dependent and independent forms. The dependent form is that used with a preverbal particle.
- The substantive present tense is based on PC. *(s)tā (W. taw, Spanish estar). The dependent forms are from OI fil, originally a 2nd person imperative meaning ‘behold’ < PC. *wel-, the same root as W. gweld, C. gweles ‘see’. The modern languages all have initial [v], showing eclipsis of the original. I. níl is a compound of ní fhuil ‘is not’. In Ulster Irish, G. & M. the negative particle is cha(n), leading to Ulster I. chan fhuil, G. chan ‘eil, M. cha nel.
- OI: (1s) táu, tó, (2s) taí, (3s) tá; (1p) taam, (2p) taaid, taid, taad, (3p) tát
- The I. future and G. future independent appear to be from OI bid, 3rd singular future absolute of the copula. The G. dependent and M. are from the OI 3rd singular conjunct bia of the substantive verb.
- The G. & M. past independent are from OI ba, 3rd singular preterite absolute of the copula verb. The Irish seems to be from OI boí, 3rd singular preterite absolute of the substantive verb.
- The past dependent forms are formed from the OI particle ro (G. ro ‘very’, W. rhy ‘very’, C. re) followed by the preterite.
- The conditional would appear to be derived from the OI. preterite subjunctive:
- (1s) beinn, (2s) betha, (3s) beth, bed; (1p) bemmis, (2p) bethe, (3p) betis
- The imperative is a reformation based on 2nd singular OI bí and perhaps also 3rd singular bíth.
- The present/future copula:
- independent is taken from OI is ‘it is’.
- I. & G. dependent forms are OI co ‘to’ + ro (particle) + ba (future copula). M. appears to preserve a more genuine OI form ní, the negative 3rd singular present; M. ree is probably formed with ro (verbal particle) by analogy.
- I. an (interrogative) is the interrogative particle with verb omitted.
- G & I. direct relative is from OI as, with the relative particle a.
- I. ar(b) is the same as gur(b) with the relative particle.
- Past/conditional copula:
- independent I. ba, G. bu, M. by are from OI ba, 3rd singular of the preterite, though G & M may have spread by analogy from the OI conjunct forms (below).
- I. gur(bh) is the same formation as the present, but with -bh representing OI bo or bu (OI corbu). G. gu’m is from OI con, considered to be either a form of the preposition co ‘to’ or com ‘with’ (W. cyf-); the G. -m is due to assimilation with the following b-.
- I. interrogative ar(bh)? is the preterite interrogative particle ar + bh- from the following verb. The indirect relative ar(bh) is the same, with the particle ar.
- The I. relative ba is from OI ba relative preterite.