Beon and Wesan
One of the most commonly used verbs in any language is the verb for 'to be'. In Old English, 'to be' is what's called a suppletive verb, and uses forms from at least three different roots. There were two distinct present stems, for which both 'wesan' and 'beon' are infinitive forms. They have slightly different uses.
The verb 'wesan' is generally used to express the present form of 'to be', and is the most commonly used form of the verb. However, 'beon' tends to be used to express habitual truths, sometimes referred to as 'gnomic' truths, such as 'wyrd biþ ful aræd - fate is fully inexorable' or 'fugolas beoþ cafe - birds are fast'. For example, examine 'he is wiga - he is a warrior' and 'wiga biþ strang - a warrior is strong'. The 'habitual truth' that warriors are strong uses 'beon', while the other uses 'wesan'.
Notice that the noun following 'is' is nominative, not accusative. This is because 'wiga' re-identifies the subject and is not an object. This form of the nominative is known as the predicate nominative. A noun describing or re-identifying a subject is known as a subject complement. You will commonly find complements after linking verbs like 'beon' or 'hatan - to call', and complements can be nouns or adjectives. For example, 'strang' is also a subject complement in the above example.
Lastly, while there is technically no future tense in Old English, the verb 'beon' is used when expressing the future tense. For example, 'ic beo gearo sona - I will be ready soon'.
You'll notice in the table below that both 'beon' and 'wesan' share the same past tense forms, which differs significantly from the present forms.
|1st Person Singular||beo||eom||wæs|
|2nd Person Singular||bist||eart||wære|
|3rd Person Singular||biþ||is||wæs|
Getting used to identifying the habitual present and current present can be hard, as it is not distinguished to the same degree in modern English. You can practice the various forms of 'to be' below.Return to Introduction to Irregular Verbs Continue to Don and Gan