A Philosophy of the Semantics of Forms of the Verb “To Be.”

One of the reasons this paper is not entirely ludicrous, if at all, is because I will undoubtedly have to use the word “is” many times throughout, and most English speakers that read it will, more or less, understand what I am writing. Or perhaps that is irony; but I have yet to discover a paradigm for the word “irony” and I doubt this is it.

English speakers, given time, grow to possess a deep understanding of the word “is” along with all other forms of the verb “to be.” People have told me before that native speakers of the language look on it differently than foreign speakers of English. Usually, many people that learn the English language are a bit, if not quite, confused by any of the forms of the verb “to be” such as “is,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “been,” “be,” and “being.” Part of this stems from the fact that many of the words do not show function as much as intrinsic value. Intrinsic is also a tricky word meaning something along the lines of in and of itself. Therefore, if a native English speaker were to say “He is the coach of the baseball team.” Some speakers of English as a second language might believe that the phrase is not as functional, or perhaps even accurate, as if one were to say, “He coaches the group of kids on the baseball team.” The verb changes from “is” to “coaches” which creates a supposedly stronger verb while at the same time giving us the functionality of the person coaching rather than merely saying what the coach intrinsically is. But a problem arises in this as far as connotations and assumptions. Language cannot solely depend on denotations and the precise definitions that lexicographers decide on. To use this example, if someone were to come up to me and remark, “He coaches the kids on the baseball team,” many would assume that something is wrong with the actual coach. It implies that he coaches the children, but this is the extent of it; he is not the actual coach, he merely coaches the kids on the team.

Since pregnancy seems somewhat of an innate, or even intrinsic (as far as the child being in and of the mother) aspect, I shall use this as an example of problems that arise from not using “is” as the verb in the sentence “Sarah is pregnant.” Even if a person were inclined to rid this sentence of the agentless passive, they would still be committing injustice to the intrinsic nature of being pregnant. For if one wished to eliminate the forms of the verb “to be” along with the agentless passive and say instead “John impregnated Sarah,” this would still fail at expressing exactly what Sarah is. If someone said “John impregnated Sarah,” many might infer a variety of implications from this statement: E.g., that although John impregnated Sarah at one point, she has since miscarried, and is no longer with child.

One half way of solving this problem is using the context of the situation of Sarah being pregnant to imply that one was also pregnant. For example, if Sarah said, “I am pregnant.” Another woman might say, “I empathize with Sarah as a pregnant woman due to personal experience in the past.” We can infer that this woman was pregnant at one time, but this does not change the truth that her statement and our inference remain contingent upon Sarah saying the original statement. Also, it leaves open for interpretation whether or not the pregnancy carried through.

In the same way, one cannot only use attributes of “being” to define being of the certain adjective. If a person utters the sentence, “John is a happy person,” we immediately know what they mean and usually detect no sarcasm or underlying implications. Also, we would not suspect double layered meanings (depending quite a lot on context, of course). On the other hand, if one only pointed out some of the defining qualities (usually) of someone that is happy, many more inferences are made and many more layers of sarcasm are intended, oftentimes, and the listener is skeptical, at best. For example in the same case if one said “John smiles far too much,” the listener might assume that John is a crazy person, or has something wrong with the muscles on his face. If someone says “John seems happy,” the listener is usually immediately skeptical. If John only seems happy, then he must be faking it. Because to seem happy is another thing entirely from being happy. This is not always and incontrovertibly the case, because obviously many people that intrinsically are happy, seem happy. But note this is not always the case with those that are said to seem happy all the time. Upon this remark, one would think that John is masking depression. Or perhaps he is a truly phony person that seems happy all the time because he is faking being happy all the time. But if John is happy, then he is. If two people disagreed and one said “John seems happy, therefore he is happy.” And another said,” John seems happy, therefore he is covering up depression,” these two would obviously be at odds. But if a perfect arbiter, one in which no greater truth could exist in came and told the universal truth of the matter, He or She would say, “John seems happy and is in truth happy,” or “John seems happy and is in truth not happy. Thus, one would be correct as far as their thinking of what John actually is, but they would both be correct in thinking that he also seems happy.

One attempt at solving this problem of using attributes of someone that is happy vs. saying they intrinsically are happy would be to find better verbs that replace the forms of “to be.” One could argue that “equals” is a suitable replacement for “is.” But I think that when one says “equals” it means to say that the subject equals something that it can never equal in scenarios that use the “to be” verb. “Equals” equals “is” is a falsehood then. Because Sarah would not equal “pregnant” in the same way that John would not equal “happy.” John and Sarah are two universals and autonomous sentient beings. “Pregnant” and “happy” are also understood universals; the subjects cannot equal them. They can “be” what these universals are, but they do not equal them. Sarah can be pregnant, but she cannot be what “pregnant” is. “Pregnant” is an idea, a universal, that we all hold to be true. We do not hold this to be exactly what Sarah is. But this can be a part of what Sarah is. Sarah is a pregnant lady, but she does not intrinsically equal the universal “pregnant” because if she did, we would not longer call her wholly Sarah as her own universal, but rather wholly “Pregnant” as its own universal and therefore would not know Sarah in the first place because she would not be Sarah at all. John equaling “happy” follows this same line of thought.

Some would say that “possessing” is another way around the problem. But John would not possess this universal “happy.” If he possessed it, one might think he has found truth, or that he in fact literally holds this universal that is “Happy.” But John as a happy person only uses the adjective to define his being. John is John. But John is not the universal “Happy.” “Happy” is “happy.” John could be a happy person though. Sarah as a pregnant lady follows this same line of thought.

Since we could probably never know the exact numbers, I should say that this next section is arguably the most easily refutable. We cannot know for certain truth, but I have to play in the real world of humans and pragmatics and it is very close. So let us say that lexicographers agree on the denotative definitions of the forms of “to be,” specifically, for this example, “is,” at about 90 percent. In the minds of the elitists of all the major English dictionaries throughout the world (I suppose Europe and America mainly) they can agree at 90 percent of the denotation. The reason is because of the ambiguity of the term. Now since language is contingent upon humans, we cannot avoid the actual context, assumptions, and connotations of the word “is” or any of the forms of the verb “to be.” If 90 percent is denotative, then the rest is something else. 4 percent is context. 5 percent is connotative. .05 is something else that we cannot exactly explain without experience or at all. And .05 is most likely a disagreement on all of it.

“Is” could equal “is”, of course, but it is so much more than only the equal sign. If a person told me they know the definition of the word “is” I would believe them. But I would never believe that they could explain to me the definition. One cannot define it in only words. Something has intrinsic value if it cannot be exactly stated in words except by what that word is. “Is” IS “is.”

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