The first verb you learn

I have been privileged to study four different languages in my as yet short lifetime. In middle school I took a year of German; in High School it was Latin; at the University I was required to take a semester of Spanish; and recently I’ve been dabbling in Koine Greek with the help of some do-it-yourself books. How much of these languages has stuck remains to be seen.

I didn’t make it far enough in the first three languages to be anywhere near fluent. More than anything they helped me to understand universal principles of grammar and how to apply them better to my English. I’m hoping to go a little farther with the Greek, God willing.

One thing about learning languages struck me recently, though. In every language I’ve learned, “to be” was one of the first verbs I was required to study. In Greek, Latin, and Spanish, “to be” is an irregular verb. The tense, number, and person must be memorized—you can’t simply follow the rules to conjugate it like you can with other verbs. Consequently, it’s also a verb you spend a lot of time with.

When learning any verb, the first conjugation you learn is the first person singular present tense. Let that sink in for a second. Can you see where I’m going here?

When Moses asked God what to call him when he delivered his message to the Israelites, God told Moses to say that “I AM” sent him1. “I am” is, of course, the first person singular present tense of the verb “to be”. The personal name of God, Yahweh (or Jehovah), is closely related to the term “I am”. It means, loosely, “the one who is”2.

So, one of the first words you learn when studying any given language is God’s name. I’m not sure if this holds any significance, but I find it very intriguing.

  1. Exodus 3:14 []
  2. For a fuller treatment of the meaning of “Yahweh”, see the Tetragrammaton article from Wikipedia. []
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4 thoughts on “The first verb you learn

  1. We are constantly immersed in the evidence of God’s existence. But like shrimp claiming there is no ocean, many are unable to see it. Not because the evidence is sparse or hard to find, but because they are overwhelmed to a state of ignorance.

    Good article.

  2. I’m curious to know why you didn’t mention that “to be” is also irregular in German and English.

    I might add that “to be” is also a unique verb in Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese (I’ve heard)–at least in the present tense. However, its importance seems diminished in those three languages; either they leave it out of their sentences completely, or they use it only for emphasis. When they actually use it, it has a single form for all persons (it does not conjugate).

    I have also studied a few languages, and I have reflected on this anomoly many times.

    The nonbeliever might suggest that the verb is irregular simply because it is so old (as if it was once regular and all verbs someday meet the same fate). One German for beginners lesson states, “As in most languages, the verb ‘to be’ is one of the oldest verbs in German, and therefore one of the most irregular.”

    Either way you look at it, God’s name has profound significance. One of my favorite New Testament verses is Christ’s declaration, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

  3. Steve said:

    I’m curious to know why you didn’t mention that “to be” is also irregular in German and English.

    Since German was the first language I attempted to learn, I honestly don’t remember much if any of it. I do remember learning “ich bin” quite early, though. As for English, I guess I completely overlooked it.

    Thanks for pointing those out.

  4. joey, books for children, and the way they learn even through speech, first gets nouns, then verbs. and few kids say “i am” before they say “vrooom” while playing with a toy car. and even “car go fast” before “i am xyz.” foreign language books for older children and adults start with “am” often and this is, in my opinion (not at all substantiated) because one of the first things you’d like to do in a foreign country is to introduce yourself (“i am xyz”) or show intent (“i am going to the brandenburg gate on the U-Bahn; can you give me some money?”) not everything needs the lens of religion. when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? occam’s razor and all that, my explanation is simpler. besides, if you’ve spent time with little kids, you know that “i am” is low on their list of things. indeed, “i am xyz” is often just parroted from the parents without the kid having any realization of what it actually means, to separate him/herself from his/her environment.

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