Why Spanish and Portuguese have two 'be' verbs

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by Beachxhair, Jul 2, 2013.

  1. Beachxhair

    Beachxhair Senior Member

    Manchester UK
    I was wondering why Spanish and Portuguese have two different 'be' verbs (Spanish ser, from Latin sedere, to stand, and estar, from stare, to stand), whereas French and Italian only have the one.

    If anyone can shed some light on this, thank you!

  2. Alxmrphi Senior Member

    Reykjavík, Ísland
    UK English
    Spanish ser is from Vulgar Latin essere (which it also is in Italian).
    Italian also uses stare in a way very close to be in English i.e. in the progressive tenses it basically is that meaning.
    I don't know French but Spanish and Portuguese are not unique amongst the Romance languages for having this.
    Well, I don't know about Romanian but if French doesn't perhaps the question is more why French doesn't since it's potentially the odd one out.

    I'm sure someone more knowledgeable will come along and explain the linguistic situation in more detail. :cool:
  3. Walshie79 Member

    Shropshire, UK
    English (British)
    The French verb "to be" actually combines forms derived from both:

    The present tense suis, es, est, sommes, e^tes, sont is obviously from the Latin esse (actually Vulgar Latin essere)- although in very early French the 2nd plural would have been very similar, estis vs esta(t)is. Similarly the simple past fus, fut etc.

    The imperfect however is from stare: e/tais/ait/ions from (e)sta+ending. No era- forms like in Spanish/Italian.
  4. francisgranada Senior Member

    For illustration:
    How are you? Spanish: Cómo estás? Italian: Come stai?
    Eve is singing. Spanish: Eva está cantando. Italian: Eva sta cantando.

    However, the Italian and the Spanish usage of the verb stare/estar in general is not same. But e.g. the in the Neapolitan it's used more or less in a "Spanish-like" way.
  5. Cenzontle

    Cenzontle Senior Member

    English, U.S.
    Even in Portuguese, the line between "ser" and "estar" is slightly different from that of Spanish.
    (For example, in giving the location of something that doesn't move around, such as a building: "estar" in Spanish, "ser" in Portuguese (along with "ficar").
    Vulgar Latin evidently did have an infinitive "essere" (from Classical "esse"), and it's a logical source for Italian "essere" and French "être".
    But it's not easy to derive Spanish and Portuguese "ser" from it, because its "-ser-" sequence is unstressed.
    A more plausible source for "ser" and for the present subjunctive "sea" (Sp.) and "seja" (Port.) is Latin "sedēre" ('to sit') and its pres.subj. "sedeat".
    (Meanwhile other tenses of "ser" are indeed derived from Latin "esse".)
    So "ser" and "estar" are "to sit" and "to stand" respectively.
  6. Ben Jamin Senior Member

    The question posed here was actually WHY Spanish and Portuguese have two different verbs for "to be". My answer is that we can as well turn the question around and ask: why English, and most European languages have only one verb for "ser"and "estar", which are quite different ideas. Actually "to be" has more than two meanings:
    to exist
    to be located somewhere permanently
    to be located somewhere temporarily
    to be in state of something
    to have a permanent property
    Maybe we can find even more.
    There are some languages that have separate verbs for all these meanings.

    English, however, has some verbs and constructions that have one of those meanings, like to exist, and "to be there".
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2013
  7. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    As far as I know only the ppl and maybe the present participle are derived from stare. (See here)
  8. jmx

    jmx Senior Member

    Spain / Spanish
    It's worth mentioning that Catalan also has "ser" and "estar", though the uses of both verbs are somewhat different from Spanish, more or less as Cenzontle explained for Portuguese.

    There was a post in some thread in this forum that described the etymologies of those verbs in Romance languages with quite a lot of detail, but I can't find it.
  9. Walshie79 Member

    Shropshire, UK
    English (British)
    Interesting link Bernd, thanks for that. As far as I can make out that article raises the possibility of the imperfect being an essere- form, while acknowledging it could also be a stare- form. I must admit I find it difficult to see how essere could turn into estre unless it was was at least influenced by ester<stare. *Escere, yes- as ​cognoscere>connai^tre, crescere>croi^tre and others; but I'd expect *essant as the present participle then.

    The article also suggests a very early remodelling of ester>stare after avoir, it seems to me that two forms of stare may have survived into early French; one a regular 1st conjugation verb, the other re-analysed as a 2nd or 3rd conjugation one. These two traded forms over time and eventually supplanted some forms of ​essere.
  10. CapnPrep Senior Member

    If you take stress into account, the forms are not very similar(éstis vs. (e)státis), and French éstes can only have come from the first one.
    The t is an excrescent consonant in all of these forms, where the loss of the intertonic vowel gave rise to the cluster /sr/.

    The following thread contains some discussion of the historical morphology of estre:
    When did romance copula take on their modern meanings?
  11. babosa daltónica Member

    United States of America English
    Two verbs for "to be" is more complex, yes, but lets you be more specific. For example, in Spanish using ser emphasizes the "action" whereas "estar" emphasizes the result.

    El concierto fue cancelado por el director. (action emphasized)
    El convierno estuvo cancelado. (por el director) (result emphasized)

    Also, for properties it enables us to be more specific in terms of meanings.

    Mi padre está muy malito. (sick)
    Mi padre es malo. (evil)

    Mi amiga es muy buena. (good person)
    Mi amiga está muy buena. (physically attractive, especially today in some contexts)
  12. Nino83 Senior Member

    Italian has also stare, as mentioned before (it works in a similar manner than in Spanish and Portuguese, for temporary states and progressive tenses).
    Furthermore the past participle of the verb essere is stato (which is also the past participle of the verb stare).
    French is the exception.
  13. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    You might be interested to know that the paradigm of the verb “to be” in Iranian languages also combines forms from two different roots, Old Iranian *as- (zero grade *s-) “to be” and *baw- (zero grade *bū-) “to become”. In New Persian “he is” is ast (Old Persian asti = Lat. est), but “he was” is būd.
  14. There are instances of "to stand" being used in place of "to be" in English too. The only one I can think of right now is "I stand corrected", but it shows the usage.
  15. Egmont Senior Member

    Massachusetts, U.S.
    English - U.S.
    I think Ben Jamin hit the nail on the head in post 6. The verb "to be" has 7 definitions in the WR dictionary, more than that in others. (That's not many. The verb do has 36, make has 39.) These could easily have been represented by seven different words. There is no reason why any other language should use a single word for all of them.

    The word "skin" in English refers both to the epidermis of a person and to the film that forms on top of liquids that contain milk when they are heated. Does anyone expect another language to use the same word for both these concepts? Would anyone be surprised if another language used two different words for them? I think not. Why, then, is there so much surprise that another language uses two words to cover the collection of unrelated and semi-related concepts that English conveys through multiple meanings of to be?
  16. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    I think we have actually been discussing two different issues. First, the distribution of (for example) “essere” and “stare” to express two different types of being. And second, the combination of etymologically separate roots within the same paradigm (as in present sum vs. perfect fui). Maybe it would be useful to keep these two questions distinct.
  17. Markdowd Member

    Italian is surely in with Spanish and Portuguese in having stare/essere, so the question is, why is French the exception??
  18. Penyafort

    Penyafort Senior Member

    Catalan (Catalonia), Spanish (Spain)
    French, and Occitan too, are the exceptions because they eventually merged forms of both verbs. Old French had estre and ester.

    That said, it is obvious that the usage of the two verbs varies from language to language.

    Well, the correct usage of ser/ésser and estar in Catalan is rather half-way between that of Portuguese and Italian. The fact that many people use now estar in a similar way to that of Spanish doesn't mean it is correct.
  19. Markdowd Member

    Many thanks Penyafort. I did not know about the old French forms. I guess there remains the question why these two "fused" into one "etre" and the others maintained their two distinctive verbs.....all very interesting!!
  20. djmc Senior Member

    English - United Kingdom
    I am not sure when it was dropped but the Latin Sto - I stand has no real equivalent in contempary French. I stand = je suis debout. Even ordering dogs about one says "debout" rather than "stand".
  21. Erkattäññe

    Erkattäññe Member

    Spanish - Argentina
    Spanish ser comes from latin sede:re not from essere, old spanish had seer from vulgar latin *sedere with the regular intervocalic loss of the latin voiced oclusive. The subjunctive stem sea- derives from sedea:- which belongs to sede:re too.
    Anyway the other forms such as the present tense and the past tense come form proper latin essere.
    So spanish and portuguese to be is a mix of those latin verbs.
    Just to clarify the origin of the formations. The usage and sense of ser versus estar is another thing.
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2016

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