I’ll Be Nice If You Be Nice
Posted by Neal on November 13, 2006
Sometimes Doug and Adam will negotiate as they choose their characters for a two-player videogame. Doug will say, something like,
You be Luigi, and I’ll be Mario.
No problem. Other times, though, he’ll say stuff like this:
I’ll be Mario if you be Luigi.
Whoa, is Doug resurrecting the archaic present subjunctive of be? No; he and Adam also say things like this:
I beed Mario.
It’s so wrong, and yet so sensible. Look what happens if you put in the ordinary form of be in that second example:
I’ll be Mario if you’re Luigi.
It makes it sound like Adam either is or is not Luigi right now, and if Doug finds out he is, then Doug will be Mario. But it really means, “If you choose Luigi, I’ll choose Mario.” I’m sure linguists have a name for this version of be, but I don’t feel like looking it up. I’ll just call it volitional be. Now that I think back on it, lots of ordinary-sounding uses of be fall into the picture, too. All the times Doug said
I was being Mario and Adam was being Luigi
it looked like an ordinary be, appearing in the participial form being, but it was really a camouflaged volitional be. If it were just ordinary, linking verb be, then that sentence would sound as odd as
?I was being tall.
That one only works if the speaker is talking about standing on a chair or walking on stilts or something. For that matter, how could we ever give a sensible imperative with be (Be there, don’t be a jerk), if it didn’t denote an action that the hearer could consciously take?
I was reminded of volitional be by a couple of recent (or at least recently viewed by me) posts on some linguistics blogs on LiveJournal. One was from Grey-Eyed Athene, who wrote:
The prof’s saying that “most of the time ‘n’ sits there and bes ‘n’.” That’s one of those constructions I wish I were grammatical for me, because it’s annoying saying “and continues to be…”
Notice that she realizes an ordinary is just won’t do the job of imputing obstinance to the N that just sits there; to do that, she needs to have continues to be. The other post was from the Absent-Minded Linguist, who wrote:
Yesterday, as we were walking back from class, Lia said something about the second be in ‘I’ll be nice if you be nice’ being a subjunctive. My non-stative be alarm went off, and I said that I don’t think it’s actually subjunctive, I think it’s something else. I asked what she would say if it was 3rd person instead of second person – how she’d complete ‘I’ll be nice if he…’, and she said, with little or no hesitation, ‘I’ll be nice if he bes nice’, and actually considered that to be an acceptable form, without backtracking and saying it was ungrammatical. I’ve observed 3sg bes in running speech before, but I’ve never had it returned to an inquiry before, nor has anyone ever admitted to me before that they find it grammatical.
Have any of you heard volitional be spoken in a form like Athene or Absent-Minded heard it, where it wasn’t disguised as ordinary be (i.e. in a participle, gerund or infinitive)? In other words, we’re looking for bes or beed, and be in places where you’d expect am, are, or is.